Exploiting the healthcare debate to restrict abortion

Some religious leaders are pushing Obama for more limits on federal abortion funding

Published September 14, 2009 10:12AM (EDT)

Editor in Chief and CEO, Sojourners, USA, Jim Wallis pauses before speaking during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday Jan. 29, 2009.
Editor in Chief and CEO, Sojourners, USA, Jim Wallis pauses before speaking during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday Jan. 29, 2009.

It was discouraging to hear Barack Obama, the man I supported for president, announce so resolutely during his speech to Congress last week that "under our [healthcare] plan no federal dollars will be used to fund abortion." It was infuriating, however, that before the morning cock could crow following the speech Jim Wallis of the antiabortion organization Sojourners was claiming that the president's remarks on abortion were just what "a broad coalition of the faith community had asked for -- no federal funding for abortions."

I had been prepared for Obama to close the door on a healthcare reform package that would include funding abortions for women who rely on Medicaid for health coverage. Low-income women already lost that right 30 years ago when the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment. I believe a principled compromise to maintain the status quo on abortion is justified if it gets us better healthcare for millions of men and women and security from the rapaciousness of the insurance industry. And no pro-choice organization wants to bear the responsibility for healthcare reform failing. And so, tacitly, pro-choice leaders have basically accepted that the Hyde Amendment restrictions, as well as those that deny federal workers, women in the military and women who get healthcare on Indian reservations funding for abortion, would be reflected in the healthcare package.

Unfortunately, the good will shown by the pro-choice community has not been met with a good-faith effort by Wallis and his friends. They now hope to use the president's promise as a way to press for further restrictions on abortion coverage in the final healthcare legislation. As one moderate pro-life leader told me, "It is going to be a long fall." All the talk about finding common ground on abortion and the emergence of moderate pro-lifers is floundering as Wallis and a few others prepare to push Congress and the White House for further concessions. "[The president's] commitment to these principles," said Wallis, "means we can now work together to make sure that they are consistently and diligently applied to any final healthcare legislation." For Wallis, that means that "no person should be forced to pay for someone else's abortion and that public funds cannot be used to pay for elective abortions."

Before the congressional recess, the moderate pro-lifers and pro-choice leaders had pretty much agreed that both sides would not seek provisions in healthcare reform that would change the status quo. Rep Lois Capps, D-Calif., codified that agreement in an amendment to the House bill. The Capps Amendment gave those opposed to abortion both the guarantee they wanted that providers would have adequate conscience protection against having to provide abortions and a prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for abortions in accordance with Hyde and other current federal law. It made no change in the ability of private insurance plans to decide whether or not to cover abortions, but prohibited private plans from using federal subsidy dollars for abortions. It provides that every state have at least one plan that offers abortion coverage and one that does not, so that someone really opposed to abortion can buy a plan that does not cover that service.

This, it now seems, is not enough for Wallis and company. They now want to be sure that if an anti-choice person chooses a plan that does cover abortion, the minuscule part of his premium that is allocated to abortion coverage for all subscribers is not used for abortion. Stephen Schenk, a moderate pro-life Catholic and a professor at Catholic University, wants healthcare reform to extend the Hyde Amendment beyond those groups that are already denied coverage to everyone. "If we are stuck with the Capps Amendment," he says, "we are going to have problems." Chris Korzen of Catholics United, a small Catholic advocacy group that claims to be progressive, is worried that the public option plan is going to offer abortion coverage. Although it will be funded through premiums and there will be at least one private plan in the "exchange" that those opposed to abortion can buy, Korzen is now poised to oppose abortion coverage in the plan most designed to help low-income people.

Enough already! This is not an attempt to achieve common ground and use common sense. This is not that different from the hard-line Catholic bishops and Family Research Council effort to use public policy and healthcare reform to make abortion less available than it already is and stigmatize every woman who even contemplates it. And frankly, while Christian progressives like Korzen and Wallis are spending all their time worrying about abortion, they're ignoring the major gap in all the plans -- the exclusion of undocumented workers living in the U.S. I always thought faith-inspired social justice advocates were the ones I could count on to go out on a limb for what is right, even if it gives the president they helped elect a hard time. I guess I was wrong.

The irony of all this is that Wallis and Korzen don't represent the majority views of either mainline or progressive religion on abortion. How long the mainline pro-choice faith community will allow Wallis and a few small groups of progressive Catholics to use healthcare reform to push for further restrictions on abortion remains to be seen. For Wallis and others to assert that denying poor women the same access to abortion as other women is moral and "what a broad coalition of the faith community had asked for" is as dishonest as claiming, like Joe "You Lie" Wilson, that the healthcare reform plans are going to provide coverage to undocumented workers.

The broad coalition Wallis refers to is, in fact, a specific group that is largely in favor of federal funding for abortion. All the members of the group have done is to put that support on the back burner in hopes of getting healthcare reform passed. Organized under the umbrella name "40 Days for Healthcare Reform," the coalition draws on about 25 denominations and independent interfaith groups for various actions. Many of these groups are on record as supporting public funding for abortion and have worked to overturn the Hyde Amendment. They include the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, Faith in Public Life, and the Disciples of Christ. Some religious groups that are not part of the 40 Days campaign are also on record as supporting Medicaid funding for abortion. The National Coalition of American Nuns has no position on abortion itself but has since 1976 supported providing federal funds for poor women's abortions, asserting that it would be discriminatory to coerce poor women into continuing pregnancies by denying them the same right to decide as women who can afford to pay for their own abortions.

So eager are Wallis and his antiabortion friends to convince the media and policymakers that progressive religion is antiabortion that they have stacked the deck and excluded some pro-choice organizations from the effort to pass healthcare reform. The Web site for the 40 Days campaign sets forward criteria for membership that exclude religious groups working on "single issues" -- code for abortion. For example, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was told that if it sent in a sponsorship fee for one of the many actions, its check would be returned. The group, founded by the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church, had sent a letter to members of Congress strongly supportive of federal funding for poor women's abortions in healthcare reform. The letter is signed by religious leaders like the deans of the Howard University and Episcopal divinity schools, as well as Nancy Ratzen, president of the National Council of Jewish Women and a member of Obama's faith-based advisory council.

Wallis and the rest need to be called to accountability for their decision to push an antiabortion agenda in the midst of what was meant to be an effort to reform healthcare. Otherwise, we will see the moral commitment most mainline and progressive religious groups have to respecting the consciences of poor and low-income women deeply compromised. Abortion is not going to sink healthcare reform, but poor faith leadership can sink the opportunity of poor women for a decent life. 

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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Abortion Barack Obama Catholicism