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Stupak, Hatch, and health care: Government shouldn't answer the abortion question

Both sides of the debate should want government out of the issue – but that means fulfilling a duty to women and children.

By Mark Lange / December 1, 2009

San Francisco

There is no issue more divisive or distressing – or more manipulated in service to bloc-headed politics – than abortion.

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As the Senate debates healthcare reform this week, abortion confronts us like an unwanted pregnancy itself. Most of us wish it would just go away. But there is a solution, if we focus on the right question: how to get government out of the issue entirely.

The first step is to create space for an honest national conversation about abortion – something we haven't had since Roe v. Wade. That 1973 Supreme Court ruling made a weak constitutional argument (privacy) the basis for national policy. This deprived states and voters from wrestling with – and settling – what some consider a religious issue, and others, a matter of civil rights.

Ever since, because propaganda is easier than policy, we've helped the cause of bumper-sticker makers more than desperate women, at a cost of 50 million abortions.

Bogus labels

Our labels betray our disrespect for honest disagreement: "Anti-choice extremists" might be otherwise known as churches. A "baby killer" could be a physician acting in accord with her own careful conscience. "Reproductive services" can abruptly curtail reproduction. And "pro-life" suggests there's a "pro-death" camp.

Today, we've resumed howling at one another in our code of choice – moving only those who already agree with us – after the House of Representatives delivered a bundle of joy last month called the Stupak amendment. The Senate bill uses different language, but the question it addresses – and the critical votes it swings – is the same: Will taxpayer money be used for abortion services?

Rather than force citizens troubled by abortion to pay for the procedure, Stupak says that those who support choice should have to fund it. (For the clearest explanation I've heard, listen to this.)

If every national decision required us to reconcile what "works" (expedience) with what's "right" (morality), or to determine what portion of public funding is how "fungible," we would never decide anything. So we should step back from Stupak, take a deep breath, and be clear about the problem we're trying to solve.

Imperatives for each side

Abortion is a matter of intense, personal, and private conscience. So we cannot fund it with the blunt (and endlessly haggled-over) instrument of public money. Nor can we legislate it out of existence.

Imagine, instead, that we decided to get government out of the abortion business entirely. That would lead to a practical imperative for each side:

A. Those of us who would protect abortion as a civil right should raise money and support it the way it matters, by making a donation to Planned Parenthood. With the total cost of all insurance-reimbursed abortions running $63 million a year (based on Guttmacher Institute data), the shortfall resulting from a Stupak-type law could be covered by a modest increase in donations to Planned Parenthood's $1 billion budget.

B. Those of us who would try to outlaw abortion as a matter of moral conscience, rather than drive it underground, should do something real to live up to that moral position, and send a check to causes that look after babies with fetal alcohol syndrome (the leading known cause of mental retardation and birth defects). And they should adopt, foster, and heal every one of the unwanted and abused children brought to term in the name of religious principle.