By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
As Democrats press forward on federal healthcare reform, the question of whether government money will fund abortion is testing President Obama's alliances with some religious moderates and is galvanizing the traditional Christian right against the White House in a way not seen since last year's campaign.
"I wouldn't call it a litmus test, but this is a prototype moment for the possibility of finding common ground," says the Rev. Joel Hunter, a prominent evangelical who is on Obama's faith advisory council. "If there is a doubt in the pro-life community about public funding of abortion, that will sink the healthcare bill."
"Moderate, pro-life evangelicals like me will be very unhappy if healthcare reform ends up becoming a vehicle for government subsidizing, or mandatory coverage, of abortion," adds David Gushee, a Christian ethics professor at Mercer University who has consulted with the Obama White House on other issues.
Such centrist evangelicals say they're confident that the healthcare bill being hashed out in Congress will include a ban on government-funded abortions in a public healthcare plan and in government-subsidized private plans. They're hoping a ban will be adopted as early as today by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is currently reviewing the healthcare bill.
More conservative antiabortion forces, meanwhile, are skeptical that congressional Democrats will insert an abortion funding ban and have begun organizing in a way not seen since last November's election.
"It's hard to think of another time when you've seen this kind of coordinated effort among pro-life groups on a particular issue," says Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. "This is a different order of magnitude than the other kinds of challenges we've faced on the life issue. It's the biggest challenge since Roe v. Wade."
Yoest, who will join an online simulcast tomorrow night called "Stop the Abortion Mandate" (it will also feature Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and other prominent social conservatives), says she's not opposed to the Obama healthcare reform per se. But she wants a clear ban on government-funded abortion and conscience protections for healthcare providers and insurers who don't want to provide abortion.
While Democrats are relatively confident that they can satisfy middle-of-the-road social conservatives like Hunter, they say that antiabortion advocates in the Stop the Abortion Mandate coalition are unlikely to come on board, even with a clear ban on federally funded or subsidized abortions.
"There is no bill or language that will ever satisfy them," says a source close to a member of Congress who supports healthcare reform but opposes federally funded abortion. "They have no intention of reducing the number of abortions, only to keep the battle going."
Abortion-rights supporters, meanwhile, want healthcare reform to cover abortions. "Reproductive healthcare must be covered, and women must be able to access that care through providers they trust," says the Planned Parenthood Action Fund's website. "Without genuine access to reproductive healthcare, a woman's right to choose is made meaningless."
The White House has said that it doesn't want to get bogged down in a debate about what procedures will be covered in a public healthcare option. But even religious moderates close to the White House say the healthcare bill must rule out covering abortion with federal funds to win their support.
"I don't have trust in the process," says Hunter. "What's much more appealing is a stipulation up front that neither requires nor bans insurance companies from covering abortion, as long as federal funds aren't used."