President Obama said Wednesday night that under his health care reform plan “no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions.” But legislation making its way through Congress would allow a government-run insurance plan to cover abortions, and that sets the stage for conservatives to launch what is likely to be the next big, cable-ready fight in the health care debate.
The battle is centering on whether health care reform uses taxpayer money to pay for abortions, a practice that is now largely banned. Pro-lifers have been activating their grassroots supporters and liberals have started distributing talking points to Democratic lawmakers in preparation for the showdown.
The issue has been on a slow boil for months. It picked up steam during the rancorous August town halls, but was largely drowned out by arguments over whether the bill creates death panels and cuts seniors’ Medicare benefits. (Quick answers: no and possibly.)
But with Congress back in session and critics in full attack mode, abortion has the potential to explode with a vengeance and become the divisive health care flavor of the week.
“Abortion funding in health care right now is our main priority, a top priority,” said Ashley Horne of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. “We are very deeply concerned, as are our constituents. We will do everything we can to ensure this bill either goes down or excludes abortion funding. We are that serious about it.”
Focus on the Family is asking its members to call lawmakers and express their views, and it has generated about 10,000 calls in the last two months. This week, the group targeted six senators with phone calls from their constituents: Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Robert Casey (D-Penn.).
And Thursday night, Family Research Council Action President Tony Perkins said he would host a town hall webcast featuring House Republican Leader John Boehner, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) and others that would include a discussion on the abortion issue.
Focus and other pro-life organizations say that the House health care reform bill will create government funding for abortions, a charge that President Barack Obama has said is “not true.” But the non-profit, non-partisan Factcheck.org said Obama “goes too far when he calls the statements that government would be funding abortions ‘fabrications.’”
Factcheck.org said House and Senate legislation would allow a government-run health insurance plan to cover abortions and provides subsidies to low and moderate income people to choose those plans. The site also points out that Obama has said that “reproductive services” would be covered by a public plan “so it’s likely any new federal insurance plan would cover abortion unless Congress expressly prohibits that.”
Rachel Laser of the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way co-wrote a memo last week that sought to explain how the House bill does not use taxpayer money to fund abortions. The memo argues that abortions would be paid for with out-of-pocket premiums that would be segregated from subsidies, ensuring that taxpayer money does not pay for them. There is also no mandate that abortions be covered by private or public health plans, she wrote.
Laser said conservative pro-life groups such as the Family Research Council and the National Right to Life Committee are using the issue to kill reform.
“We don’t want this to be the next death panels. We don’t want to see abortion obstruct health care reform. We don’t want abortion to mislead people as to what’s in health care reform, such that they can’t give it a fair shake,” Laser said.
Jim Wallis, president of the Christian social justice network Sojourners and a pro-lifer in favor of reform, said some groups “are using the abortion issue to sabotage health care reform.”
Wallis, a member of Obama’s advisory council of faith based and neighborhood partnerships, said there is a group of pro-life and pro-choice activists working to ensure that the legislation is abortion neutral and doesn’t advance or erode the agenda of either side.
That means, he said, two principles must be enforced: nobody should be forced to pay for other people’s abortions, and nobody should be able to pay for their own abortions with public money.
“There’s still work to be done so that principle is upheld in any final bill,” Wallis said. “In my judgment, we’re not there yet.”
And if it doesn’t get worked out, Wallis said, it could be a “deal breaker.”
Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, said the group plans to use all it resources to raise the issue’s profile.
“This is going to be a real important issue in the weeks ahead,” Johnson said. “By the time they try to bring a bill to the floor of the House, anybody who’s paying attention is going to know that this bill creates a huge abortion program run by the federal government.”
Casey, a pro-life Democrat who has been targeted by Focus on the Family, said the issue is a concern, but will be worked out so that the bill maintains abortion’s status quo.
“I don’t think the country wants this health care bill to be a vehicle for debates about other issues,” he said.