Abortion and the health care bills: Let's welcome the debate

The issue of federal funding for abortions -- indeed abortion itself -- can't be ignored. This divisive issue needs legislative solutions, not more court decisions.

Congress has never really had a full-throated debate over abortion, one that would help find a political truce on a recurring issue that still divides Americans nearly four decades after the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade

No wonder then that the possibility of federal money being used to pay for abortions under the Senate version of healthcare reform might derail its passage in the more abortion-sensitive House. 

About 12 antiabortion Democrats, such as Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, threaten to vote against the Senate bill, even though they voted for the House bill last fall. Their numbers alone could turn other Democrats against President Obama’s campaign for quick passage.

The high court ruling in 1973 defined a right to abortion for women (up to the point of the viability of a fetus/child outside the womb). But Congress has consistently blocked federal money being spent for abortions through the so-called Hyde Amendment. It is the apparent watering down of a similar funding ban in the Senate bill – the one that Mr. Obama wants to push through – that could now force Congress to tackle the broader issues around abortion. 

The funding ban has helped to keep alive debate over abortion, including the question of when life begins and whether government should exert power over personal health decisions. But most lawmakers would prefer to duck a larger debate, preferring instead to defer to the courts to wrestle with such moral issues. 

Sadly, this prevents a societal consensus or middle ground on abortion being forged by democratic rather than judicial means. As a result, extreme activists on both sides dominate the discussion.

The current funding ban reflects a deference toward those who oppose legalized abortion and don’t want their tax dollars being used for what they regard as murder. On the other side, however, are abortion-rights groups that claim this right is eroded if a woman does not have the means to pay for an abortion. 

The heart of this debate in the healthcare bills comes down to this: Is it possible to wall off federal subsidies for health insurance from being spent on abortions?

Antiabortion Democrats argue that the Senate bill’s proposed exchange for selling private health insurance, in which different plans could be bought by federally subsidized consumers, does not contain enough safeguards against government money going for abortions.

Sad, isn’t it, that the abortion issue has now been reduced to an accounting problem. It shows how unwisely Americans, including the courts and Congress, have handled this long debate. 

Where is the call, made by Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign, to make “abortion rare”? Where is the debate on counseling women about alternatives to abortion, providing support for women to complete their pregnancy, and making adoptions easier?

Obama did hope for progress in a national discussion on such concerns in a speech that he gave last May at the University of Notre Dame.

“When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe, that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground,” he said. “That’s when we begin to say, ‘Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually. It has both moral and spiritual dimensions.’ ”

At some point, lawmakers will need a full political debate and a possible reconciliation on abortion through the democratic process – one that the courts have so far not provided.

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