By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
House Democrats' attempts to satisfy Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak over the "abortion issue" in healthcare reform have reportedly finally ground to a predictable and in some ways deserved halt. I say predictable because it has seemed clear for some time that there was no available compromise on the issue: Abortion rules would not be eligible for consideration under reconciliation rules, and there aren't 60 votes in the Senate for more restrictive abortion rules (as it was, pro-choice senators held their collective noses to vote for restrictive language already in the bill).
And I say deserved because while I understand the need for the negotiations--passing the health reform bill is the greater good here--the fact is that they were meaningless because the health reform bill on offer simply wouldn't use taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. The "issue" here is of the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin nature, unrelated to what the bill actually does but focusing on what theoretical ripple effects it might have. Or, as the St. Petersburg Times put it today, it's "more about philosophy than funding."
Of course whether the health bill passes or not will likely turn on this issue more than any other.
The bill explicitly bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortions. The Stupak position rests on the assertion that, as Roll Call put it, "the Senate package is inadequate because it allows women who receive federal subsidies to buy insurance policies covering abortions." In other words if a woman receives federal subsidies to pay for her health insurance, it's conceivable that she might have cash left over--that buying health insurance would not leave her destitute--and that she might use some of that money to pay for an abortion. (As a quick aside, shouldn't such concerns also rule out things like tax breaks, tax rebates, and tax credits? The extra money someone takes home could, after all, go to an abortion. For that matter, shouldn't it rule out salaries for federal employees, including military personnel? After all, those are tax-payer dollars that could, down the line, end up paying for an abortion. Because abortion is, you know, a legal medical procedure.)
That's the short version of the prolife problems with the Senate bill. AOL Politics Daily columnist David Gibson does a much more thorough, point by point deconstruction of their argument, concluding that "a close reading of the two bills, however, informed by analyses from a range of experts, reveals that the pro-life claims ... are, in fact, mistaken. Indeed, the Senate bill is in some respects arguably stronger in barring abortion financing and in promoting abortion reduction."
Timothy Stolfuz Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee with a long expertise in health law and a strong belief in "the sacredness of life" came to a more blunt conclusion about the notion that the Senate bill funds abortions: "This is simply not true." Jost's conclusion, backed up by indepth analysis you can find here and here is that the House and Senate bills have only marginal differences when it comes to how they handle abortion.
But as is often the case in politics, the facts of the matter are beside the point, especially since--by and large of necessity--the media (myself probably included) use the shorthand descriptive that Stupak and his allies are struggling over "abortion funding in the health reform bill," leaving the casual observer to believe there's a chance that the bill could directly fund abortions.
And it may well prove to be the health reform bill's undoing. If Stupak does have the dozen votes he claims and they follow through on their threats to vote against the Senate bill, that would probably be the end. (Time's Amy Sullivan suggests the real number is closer to a half-dozen, which would still be a fairly steep obstacle.) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are making brave noises about passing the bill without the prolifers. Pelosi went so far as to tell Rachel Maddow that Stupak won't let health reform go down over the issue, implying that his hardline position was a negotiating tactic. Indeed, Stupak and his cohorts will have to ask themselves whether expanded healthcare for tens of millions of people is more important than a marginal (illusory, really) abortion victory.
The clearest sign that the phantom abortion debate is the pivotal issue for healthcare reform could the collective GOP silence on it. Republicans have made a great show of playing up House-Senate Democratic divisions, a clever press strategy if a questionable legislative one, but they have been content to let the abortion issue play out without their interference--making it partisan might just help Democratic leaders.