Obama's healthcare plan and "choice"

Conservatives say it might require that federal funds cover abortion. Pro-choicers aren't so sure

Published July 23, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Think debate over the president's healthcare plan is contentious? You ain't seen nothing yet. Cue center stage the divider of all dividers, the heart of the country's culture war -- it's ... drum roll ... abortion. There is no mention of the issue in the critical healthcare bills currently being considered in Congress, but abortion foes argue that the legislation would allow, maybe even require, federal funding to cover abortions and make the procedure both more accessible and more common. Despite this recent chatter, Obama didn't explicitly speak to the issue of abortion during Wednesday's press conference on the healthcare overhaul. (Although he did obliquely emphasize "choice.")

"This is a president who says he wants to reduce abortions," says Douglas Johnson, director of the National Right to Life Committee. "But the actual policies that this administration is promoting will result in massive public subsidies for abortion and result in a massive increase in the number of abortions" -- because poor women who previously lacked insurance might suddenly have a real choice about carrying their pregnancy to term.

Conservatives would also have us believe that federal money would be directly funneled to abortion. The truth, however, is just as Politico's Ben Smith put it: "The 'government option' or 'public plan' is only administered by the government; the actual services will be paid with the same mix of private money and vast new subsidies that will pay for private plans, some of which now cover abortion."

Still, some Democrats have suggested a "common ground" approach: Let insurers decide what coverage they offer, just as they do now. Abortion coverage would neither be required nor prohibited. A more popular Democratic solution is to have an independent medical panel determine which procedures should require coverage. This approach is dissatisfying to abortion-rights supporters and opponents alike: One group assumes abortion will be covered, the other assumes it won't -- and neither is happy about said assumptions.

Certain conservatives are going as far as to call for a clear ban on funding in the pending legislation. If they succeed, a whole lot of women will lose medical benefits under Obama's plan: Roughly 86 percent of employment-based insurance plans covered abortion in 2002, according to the Guttmacher Institute. As Laurie Rubiner, vice-president for public policy and advocacy at Planned Parenthood, told Politico: That goes against "the first principle of health care reform, which is: Don’t make people worse off under health care reform than they are today."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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