White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is simply wrong when he states, as he did the other day, that decisions about whether or not to cover abortions with federally funded tax dollars should be "left to medical experts in the field." The issue here is not a medical issue but a political one: Will the Hyde Amendment, which has barred the use of federal funds for abortions since 1976 be set aside or not?
Mr. Gibbs is a young man so he may not recall the debate about liberalizing abortion laws before Roe v. Wade. Indeed, people with the best of intentions, argued that the issue could be better left to doctors than to legislators or bureaucrats because doctors had taken the Hippocratic Oath and were in the business of healing not killing. That argument was put forth by Father Robert Drinan, S.J. in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere. Father Drinan did not foresee that some doctors would end up on the payroll of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, that they would have an economic interest, indeed a livelihood, in the destruction of human life, not its healing. We in the pro-life community cannot be duped again.
On the other hand, we in the pro-life community must understand that we have failed to persuade our fellow citizens that abortion should not be legal. While we can and should do everything in our power to persuade people to choose life, both as a practical matter and in shaping our laws, we cannot unduly interfere with people who are doing what they are legally entitled to do.
The White House should insist that health care reform not be used as a vehicle for the pro-life or for the pro-choice groups to advance their agendas. Health care reform should be abortion-neutral, neither making the procedure more available nor more difficult to procure. Beset by arguments about how to save costs, how to pay for the overhaul, and all the various other aspects of the complicated reform effort, the last thing those who favor reform need is a debate about abortion which brings such powerful passions into play.
There is an easy way to achieve this. Policies that are to receive federal subsidies can’t provide abortion services in their basic policies but the consumer who is selecting the policy and receiving the subsidy can, with his or her own money, get a "rider" to the policy that covers abortion. This way, no federal dollars will be used for procuring insurance that covers abortion services and no woman would be in a different situation from the situation she is in currently. The federal option, if it passes, could follow a similar path of using "out-of-pocket" riders for abortion coverage.
Those on Capitol Hill who think they can hoodwink us with a "board of medical experts" should understand that many of us Catholics who voted for Democratic congressional candidates and for Barack Obama did so because we believed the party as a whole was becoming more sensitive to our concern that, despite the clear wording of the text, Roe has created an "abortion-on-demand" legal regime in this country. We responded to candidate Obama’s call for a reduction in the abortion rate through non-coercive policies of support for women facing crisis pregnancies. We cheered, and some of us cried, when pro-life Sen. Bob Casey, unlike his father, was permitted to address the Democratic National Convention. All that good will goes out the window if the Congress and the White House try to skate around the Hyde Amendment. It would be a cruel irony if, having supported efforts to achieve universal health insurance together since the 1940s, the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church would be prevented from working together at this moment because pro-choice lobbyists want to use health care reform as a vehicle for expanding abortion.