The Next Healthcare Reform Fight: Make the Abortion Executive Order Law

Getting behind a pro-life bill would help some representatives win back their constituencies.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Despite the fact that the new nationalized healthcare law is less than a week old, groups on both sides of the issue are already plotting how to expand or curtail its provisions.

One issue that remains especially difficult to resolve is the way the new law deals with the use of federal funds to pay for abortions and abortion-related services. For many months, the Democrats, led by the White House, have maintained that the language included in the Senate version of the bill, which ultimately became the law, should have been sufficient to satisfy any concerns the anti-abortion-rights community might have had. Opponents of federally funded abortion, however, were unconvinced, demanding that tougher language be inserted into the bill before the House passed it or, failing that, into the package of reconciliation fixes currently being debated.

Under a compromise brokered by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, who forced the insertion of tougher--some called them "ironclad"--restrictions into the version of the healthcare bill that passed the House last November, the anti-abortion-rights holdouts agreed to vote for the version of the bill that eventually became law in exchange for a presidential executive order dealing with abortion funding in the new healthcare system.

The Stupak deal is highly controversial, having made the difference between the passage and the defeat of the healthcare bill. It has cost him considerable support in the anti-abortion-rights community, which views his deal as a sellout and the executive order, which President Barack Obama signed Wednesday at a closed-door White House ceremony, as meaningless because it does not carry the force of law.

The next step, at least as far as this issue is concerned, should be for those members of Congress who care about the issue to take the language of Obama's executive order and introduce it in the House in the form of legislation.

Such a bill could garner majority support if Speaker Nancy Pelosi would permit it to come to the floor for a vote--but she is something of an extremist on the issue, and not in a way that works to the advantage of those who shared Stupak's concerns. Therefore, at the moment the bill is introduced, it should be accompanied by a discharge petition, a parliamentary device used to bring legislation to the floor over the speaker's objections as soon as it is signed by a majority of House members.

As the names of members who sign discharge petitions are a matter of public record, even if the measure fails to get the requisite number of signatures to force it to the floor, the voters would still have the chance to see which members of Congress are really willing to walk the talk, since "the abortion issue was the pivot point for the passage or failure of the entire bill," according to Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion-rights Susan B. Anthony List.

The Democrats who joined in the compromise "chose a last minute fig leaf rather than standing up for the pro-life American majority," Dannenfelser said, adding that the "closed door ceremony reveals just how quickly this pro-abortion president and his enablers want this issue to go away."

Strategically, the issue remains a winner for the opponents of the new healthcare law. More than a few Democrats who voted for the bill, or who changed their votes from "No" to "Yes" in the closing days of the debate, represent districts with vocal, powerful pro-life constituencies. For them, the issue remains unsettled, meaning that the Democrats who represent those congressional districts will have to work to regain their trust. And their voters have a right to know where they stand. Seeing if they would get behind an effort to give the Obama executive order the force of law would be a good place to start.

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