Obama: ‘Work it out within the party’

abortion_0515The story had to be written, so the New York Times turned to a veteran who has excelled as the newsroom’s designated expert on doing serious, fair and accurate coverage of cultural and religious conservatives. Yes, the Times has such a person. I have heard media critics on the right praise David D. Kirkpatrick far more often than I have heard them attack him.

Thus, this was the man who needed to write the story that ran under this headline: “Abortion Fight Complicates Debate on Health Care.” Here’s the top of the story:

WASHINGTON – As if it were not complicated enough, the debate over health care in Congress is becoming a battlefield in the fight over abortion.

Abortion opponents in both the House and the Senate are seeking to block the millions of middle- and lower-income people who might receive federal insurance subsidies to help them buy health coverage from using the money on plans that cover abortion. And the abortion opponents are getting enough support from moderate Democrats that both sides say the outcome is too close to call. Opponents of abortion cite as precedent a 30-year-old ban on the use of taxpayer money to pay for elective abortions.

My only negative comment about the opening of the story is that it makes it sound like this is something new. I reality, of course, this battle inside the Democratic tent has been going on for weeks or months. Click here and then here to catch up on that, a bit.

The story, you may note, also hints at the line that pro-life Democrats have been trying to draw in the sand, by calling for a simple, public up-or-down vote on the Hyde Amendment.

What will really raise eyebrows, however, is Kirkpatrick’s summary paragraph:

The question looms as a test of President Obama’s campaign pledge to support abortion rights but seek middle ground with those who do not. Mr. Obama has promised for months that the health care overhaul would not provide federal money to pay for elective abortions, but White House officials have declined to spell out what he means.

There you have the key to the whole thing. The president is insisting that he will keep the promise, but there is no singular statement of what the compromise bill will look like. And don’t think that his pro-life critics — left, middle and right — haven’t noticed that. This is also, I would assume, why journalists have hesitated to write about this issue. How do you nail down facts, or even opinions, when you don’t really know what is at stake?

The strength of this story comes near the end, with it’s focus on debates inside the Democratic Party and, finally, a clear statement in the Times about the importance of the U.S. Catholic bishops on this issue. Again, why do they matter so much? Duh. The bishops have a proven record of actually wanting health-care reform to pass.

As always in Beltway battles, people on the inside are already trying to do the math.

Lawmakers pushing the abortion restrictions say they feel the momentum is on their side, especially because the restlessness of other Democratic moderates is making every vote count. At least 31 House Democrats have signed various recent letters to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, urging her to allow a vote on a measure to restrict use of the subsidies to pay for abortion, including 25 who joined more than 100 Republicans on a letter delivered Monday.

Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, a leading Democratic abortion opponent, said he had commitments from 40 Democrats to block the health care bill unless they have a chance to include the restrictions.

After months of pushing the issue, Mr. Stupak said in an interview, Mr. Obama finally called him 10 days ago. “He said: ‘Look, try to get this thing worked out among the Democrats. We want you to work it out within the party,’ ” Mr. Stupak said, adding that Mr. Obama did not say whether he supported the segregated-money provision or a more sweeping restriction. “We got his attention, which we never had before.”

The story meticulously quotes calm voices on both sides, as it should, and ends with the bishops. Once again, the key debates are taking place among people who WANT health-care reform, but have questions about issues — abortion, rationing, etc. — that historically have been debated in terms that are both political and religious.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has lobbied for decades to persuade the government to provide universal health insurance, says it opposes the bill unless it bans the use of subsidies for plans that cover abortion.

“We have said to the White House and various Senate offices that we could be the best friends to this bill if our concerns are met,” Richard M. Doerflinger, a spokesman for the bishops on abortion issues, said in an interview. “But the concerns are kind of intractable.”

Why? Because many of the concerns are ancient and doctrinal. In other words, this battle is pulling everyone — both opponents of abortion and defenders of abortion rights — into church-state territory.

Stay tuned. Obviously.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Davis

    “We have said to the White House and various Senate offices that we could be the best friends to this bill if our concerns are met,” Richard M. Doerflinger, a spokesman for the bishops on abortion issues, said in an interview. “But the concerns are kind of intractable.”

    The follow-up questions I hope the reporter asked.

    - So, you are saying the Bishops are willing to deny universal health care to millions of people–a long time goal of the church–over an accounting issue involving abortion?

    - You say it is “kind of intractable.” Are the Bishops also prepared to oppose universal coverage for millions of Americans over contraceptive coverage? How about conscience clauses?

    - Why have the Bishops been so silent on this issue over the last six months? Is there agreement among the Bishops? Is the Vatican pressuring the Bishops on this issue? And what role does the billion dollar Catholic health provider industry play in the Bishop’s positioning on the issue?

  • http://www.nrlc.org Douglas Johnson

    Today’s New York Times story by David Kirkpatrick, “Abortion Fight Complicates Debate on Health Care,” focuses on just one of the three major types of pro-abortion components found in the pending health care bills — the proposed premium-subsidy programs. As the bills are currently drafted, the premium-subsidy programs would use tax funds to help buy private health plans that pay for elective abortions. This is hardly just “an accounting issue,” as the previous commenter would have it. It would represent a drastic break from the laws (such as the Hyde Amendment) that govern all current federal health programs.

    The Hyde Amendment and the other laws that prohibit subsidies for abortion in current federal health programs were not accounting devices, but effectively written laws, under which federal funds may neither pay directly for abortion nor subsidize health plans that include abortion coverage. These laws were not intended to save money, but to save lives, and they have done so. These laws incorporate a value judgment that abortion is a bad thing, and that federal policy should discourage it.

    The “fund segregation” approach on abortion currently being pushed by top congressional Democrat leaders — with implicit White House backing — in effect relies on narrow, contrived definitions what constitutes a federal subsidy, similar to the concepts that were rejected when they were proposed in years past by institutions that did not want to be governed by federal anti-discrimination requirements. Remember Grove City College, which accepted no direct federal funding but which was held to be subject to federal sex discrimination law because it enrolled some individual students who received federal Pell grants? Remember Bob Jones University, which lost its federal tax exemption (deemed to be a type of subsidy) because of a policy against interacial dating? More on this question here: http://www.nrlc.org/AHC/PolitiFactRebuttal.html

    The Times story did not discuss the second major abortion-related issue surrounding the health care legislation: The House Democratic leadership bill (H.R. 3200) would create a “public plan” and (in the Capps Amendment) explicitly authorize that government-operated plan to pay for elective abortions. This would be direct government funding of abortion. Abortionists would send their bills to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and receive payment checks drawn on the U.S. Treasury — payments in federal funds, which are the only kinds of funds that the agency can spend. The claim that these abortions would be paid for by “private funds” is absurd on its face — a political hoax. See “The Truth About ‘The Truth About the Capps Amendment,’” here:
    http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/healthcare/59985-the-truth-about-the-truth-about-the-capps-amendment

    The Times story also did not discuss diverse provisions, found especially in the Baucus bill and in the bill reported out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, that would create authorities for future pro-abortion mandates to expand access to abortion in various ways.

    In 2007, Barack Obama promised Planned Parenthood that abortion would be “at the heart” of his health reform legislation and in his public plan. The currently pending bills would deliver on that promise. So far, pro-life amendments to correct these problems have been defeated in four congressional committees, by the Democratic chairmen allied with the White House, and senior White House staff have taken partial credit for this. Senate Democratic senators allied with the White House are continuing to oppose remedial amendments in the Senate Finance Committee this week. There is not the slightest evidence to support the notion that the White House has sent a signal that it really wants to get abortion out of the bills. Government funding of abortion is unpopular, as three recent polls reaffirm – thus, the president continues to try to conceal his pro-abortion policy goals with contrived terminology, misdirection, and misrepresentation. See http://www.nrlc.org/AHC/Advisory090809.html

    Douglas Johnson
    Legislative Director
    National Right to Life Committee
    Washington, D.C.
    http://www.nrlc.org/ahc
    http://stoptheabortionagenda.com

  • Jerry

    Thanks for highlighting this story. It’s always a pleasure to read a well-written and balanced piece.

  • Chris

    “- Why have the Bishops been so silent on this issue over the last six months?”

    That would only be a good question if it was true. It isn’t. The bishops have consistently said for a long time that this would be an issue.

  • Ann

    New York Times story:

    Supporters of the current segregated-money model argue that 17 state Medicaid programs that cover elective abortions use a similar system, dividing their federal financing from state revenues they use to pay for procedures.

    The state Medicaid programs are required to comply with the Hyde Amendment.

    Douglas Johnson falsely said:

    The Times story did not discuss the second major abortion-related issue surrounding the health care legislation: The House Democratic leadership bill (H.R. 3200) would create a “public plan” and (in the Capps Amendment) explicitly authorize that government-operated plan to pay for elective abortions. This would be direct government funding of abortion.

    The Capps Amendment is not difficult to read. It very clearly prohibits the use of federal money for abortions, except for the exceptions allowed under the Hyde Amendment (mother’s life, incest, or rape).

    PolitiFact found another of Johnson’s statements to be false:

    Under the Baucus bill…federal funds would subsidize coverage of elective abortions.”

    National Right to Life Committee on Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 in a press release

    We found Rep. John Boehner’s claim that Democratic plans for health reform would provide federal subsidies for abortion False as it related to the Capps Amendment in a House version of health care reform, and we find it’s even more of a stretch in Baucus’ plan, which does not even include a public option. And so we rule this claim False.

    politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2009/sep/21/national-right-life-committee/national-right-life-committee-claims-under-Baucus-/

  • Dave

    “We got his attention, which we never had before.”

    What Stupak had never gotten before was a call from Obama on the subject. I doubt the President had been theretofore inattentive to the issue.


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