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A choice he may regret

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Kathleen Parker
September 6, 2009
— As President Barack Obama prepares to address Congress on health care reform, America’s pro-life movement is gassing up.

If Obama hasn’t liked the tenor of town-hall meetings, wait until he meets pro-lifers at full throttle. They’re planning a major drive (to exhaust the metaphor) to try to stop federal funding of abortion as allowed under proposed health care legislation.


Obama has partly invited this havoc by not being completely forthright about how health care reform, as currently proposed, would provide taxpayer funding for abortion.


The president may have decided that a thorough explanation was too complicated—and the subject is not simple. Or perhaps, as some have suggested, he simply doesn’t understand it himself. But Obama figured wrong if he thought he could deflect concerns about one of the nation’s most divisive issues with a casual dismissal of those crazy myths.


For the past couple of weeks, Obama has been dogged by fact checkers, including Factcheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, following a comment he made Aug. 19 that charges of government-funded abortions in the health care bill were “fabrications.” Not really. Somewhere between hysterical claims that Americans will be forced to pay for abortions and assertions that no federal funds will go toward abortion is a more-nuanced, if less interesting, truth.


Although the bills before Congress don’t require federal funding of abortion, they do allow for funding in indirect—possibly disingenuous—ways.


This, at a time when more Americans consider themselves pro-life (51 percent) than pro-choice (42 percent), according to a Gallup Values and Beliefs survey in May. Meanwhile, 20 House Democrats have signed a letter expressing concern about the abortion funding. Pro-life Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, who co-sponsored a failed amendment to exclude abortion from the bills, has said that as many as 39 Democrats might join him in trying to block any bill without the exclusion.


Essentially, there are two areas of concern.


One lies in the proposed public option in the House leadership’s bill (H.R. 3200), which allows federal funding of abortion only in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother, thanks to an amendment by California Democratic Rep. Lois Capps.


The Capps Amendment is similar to the Hyde Amendment to Medicaid—before which federal dollars paid for as many as 300,000 abortions annually—with one crucial difference: It leaves open the possibility for funding elective abortion at the discretion of the secretary of health and human services.


Given the pro-choice record of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose mock-motto among Republicans on the Hill is “everyone should be aborted at birth,” there’s little question how she would rule.


Abortion funding, moreover, would be in sync with Obama’s stated position that reproductive health constitutes “essential care.” It also would be consistent with the spirit of his campaign promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would remove all obstacles to abortion. While the act has assumed a lower priority on Obama’s to-do list, the House bill is a significant step toward accomplishing the same thing.


The other area of concern is with private insurance coverage that would compete with the public option. Although some insurance carriers would specifically not offer abortion coverage, others will. And because some Americans would be provided federal subsidies to buy coverage—and could pick policies that cover the procedure—the purity of Obama’s statement that abortions are not funded under the plan gets diluted.

Segregating funding so that taxpayers’ dollars don’t get tainted by abortions is problematic, to say the least. And to people not overly concerned about how others handle their reproductive choices, the fuss may seem like so much hair-splitting. But this is hardly a new problem, and the decision to reverse a tradition of keeping the federal government out of abortion is unnecessarily divisive. Obama’s incomplete response to concerns, meanwhile, falls somewhat shy of his commitment to transparency.


What seems increasingly obvious is that Obama tried to do too much while his political capital was strong. In the process, he has lost momentum and trust. A recent Rasmussen poll tracked Obama’s performance approval at just 45 percent—his lowest so far.


Obama still has a chance with his speech Wednesday to wrest control of this monster, but he’ll have to return to his original mission of lowering costs and making insurance portable and fair (no pre-existing condition disqualification). Republicans wouldn’t stop him if he followed that course, but the funding of abortions could terminate reform in gestation.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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