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Jon O'Brien Headshot

Truth Is Indeed One of the First Casualties of War

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Jim Wallis' protracted lecture on how abortion has become a central part of the health care reform debate proves how truth is, indeed, one of the first casualties of war--even a culture war. Here, I examine just a few of his statements to show how his version of events is so far removed from reality that we should reject his premises, arguments and conclusions in toto.

"The culture wars have begun again."

Jim is mistaken. Did the culture wars ever go away? And if they did, who has reignited the flames? Throughout this process, we in the pro-choice community have supported health care reform and worked hard with Members of Congress to pass a comprehensive health care reform package. We have stayed true to our core values, seeking to overcome the struggles ordinary Americans have making ends meet. These struggles mean that many cannot afford basic health care or have to choose between maintaining their health and paying for other basic necessities. The anti-choice lobby, with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Office of Prolife Activities at the helm, has shown that it is willing to stop at nothing to ensure that its own views, which are shared by very few Americans, held sway. This lobby, aided by the 64 Democrats who voted to insert unfounded red herrings into a critical life-and-death debate over the basic right of access to health care, exploited the vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party. Wallis is an exemplar of this lobby, seeking to limit access to abortion at every turn. He was ably abetted by the self-described "progressive pro-lifers" like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, whose comparisons of abortion to torture gained resonance among those who are unyieldingly opposed to women's reproductive freedoms. We should not forget that Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good were founded with the support of senior Democratic strategists--whose main interest was in a Congressional majority, and not the goals and principles supported by those who might vote for such a majority.

"Those of us who have worked hard to find some common ground in this debate, it's now becoming an all win-or-lose situation.... [We have sought] to help forge some compromise."

Jim is mistaken. He is not interested in any compromise that includes access to abortion. The pro-choice community has been working hard to find a middle ground in the abortion debate. There were those of us who were more than willing to refine the Capps Amendment that was rejected by the anti-choice lobby, but Wallis and his friends worked tirelessly to reject any compromise along those lines. Jim Wallis' limited discussions with the pro-choice community have been obstructionist and unhelpful. As regards compromise, there was, in reality, no room for compromise once the anti-choice movement decided that it was willing to trade health care reform in their desire to further restrict access to abortion.

"The bill that was passed by the House was a huge step toward one of the greatest legislative accomplishments and victories for social justice in a generation."

Jim is mistaken. The bill, as currently constructed, is like passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, but excluding the visually impaired from the protections in the legislation. Leaving out what Jim coyly refers to, with quotes, as "women's health" is anathema to those of us who fight for improved access to women's health care services every day. If we exclude access to abortion for women in this bill, all of the other advances are compromised. Reproductive justice is the basis of women's equality--without it, women become second-class citizens.

"The bill that came out of the House achieves many of the goals of the faith community by providing health care for 36 million more people, or almost 96% of Americans."

Jim is mistaken. The reality is that health care reform was not initiated to achieve the goals of the faith community. The aim of the bill was to provide health care for those who did not have it. Americans were promised that if people liked their existing coverage, they would not lose it. That promise has been broken.

"While we still need to include everybody -- especially immigrants for whom this bill is still very inadequate -- the House vote was a major legislative achievement."

Jim is mistaken. Just as he is willing to throw women's health care under the bus, so is Wallis also willing to throw immigrants' health under the bus. The needs or rights of any group that get in the way of Jim Wallis' definition of what constitutes a "major legislative achievement" are expendable.

"Although the Capps Amendment was meant as a good faith effort to find common ground...it failed to address many pro-life concerns...Capps might have been a fruitful starting point for dialogue."

Jim is mistaken. Polling has shown that many Americans are willing to support a compromise on this issue, such as that outlined in the Capps Amendment. Polls by Catholics for Choice and the Mellman Group prove this. However, this compromise was not enough for anti-choice extremists such as Jim Wallis. We should also remember that it is not always possible to meet people half way. And in such cases, the majority should hold sway. Sadly, the Democratic leadership decided that the minority view, and Bart Stupak's opposition to abortion is the view of a very small minority, would win the day. And American women were the losers.

"Sojourners...worked very hard to find a solution here and were one of the very few groups really talking to both sides."

Jim is mistaken. Sojourners' discussions with the pro-choice side must have been in whispers, because few recall hearing from them and as I noted above, what we did hear was described as obstructionist and unhelpful.

"Because the pro-life side wasn't really invited into a real discussion about possible solutions, the "compromise" missed some important things, misread the real situation, and failed to pass the tests of maintaining current law, abortion neutrality, and the status quo."

Jim is mistaken. The antiabortion side decided that it was not interested in any compromise, hence the "my way or the highway" showdown between on one side Bart Stupak and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership on the other. Therefore they pushed us beyond a compromise, "the current law, abortion neutrality and the status quo." In fact, this is particularly hard to fathom--given the demand by Bart Stupak and others that the bill would fail if their language, and no version thereof was acceptable, was not given a vote and included in the final bill to pass the House of Representatives.

"Both sides had seemed to agree with the principle that no one should be required to fund abortion if their conscience compels them not to, and that no abortion should be paid for with federal funds."

Jim is mistaken. Both sides had agreed that we would support a bill that would not further either side's agenda. Through our taxes, we are all forced to fund things with which we disagree. For those who support immigration reform, including Jim Wallis we understand, funding for unjust immigration policies should be opposed. Yet we have never heard him support moves that would destroy legislation over those issues. Why is abortion different?

"The pro-choice side acknowledges the conscience argument, but wants to ensure access to legal abortion and believes that such access should not be restricted by those who oppose the law on the grounds of conscience. This tacit agreement also follows public opinion in that a majority of the country doesn't want to make all abortions illegal, but doesn't want public funds to pay for it."

Jim is mistaken. His approach to conscience protections is very one-sided. In fact, we find that a majority of Catholics supports federal funding for abortion, as do other cohorts of the population. The claim that the public is unhappy with federal funding is a myth propagated by those opposed to abortion. Would he have us disregard the consciences of women and men who support abortion access?

"How to protect the consciences of both sides here -- pro-life tax payers and the women who want access to legal abortion -- is a most difficult issue to resolve."

Jim is mistaken. This is a false dichotomy. Prolife taxpayers and pro-choice taxpayers might be a reasonable comparison, or perhaps those who want to preserve access to legal abortion and those who wish to deny access to legal abortion. The circle of people who support choice extends beyond women who want access to legal abortion--it includes men, women who are not able to or no longer able to have children and a host of others. It is, in reality, a simple issue to resolve. All insurance policies, federal and private, should offer medical coverage for legal health services to those who want them. If anybody is uncomfortable about what is offered, they can choose not to avail of those services.

"More than 85% of those women, if present numbers hold up, will pay for the abortion with private funds, and only 13% will use health-care plans to pay for it."

Jim is mistaken. This is one of the many misrepresentations by those who seek to minimize the impact of the Stupak-Pitts amendment. The claim that only a few women will be affected is irrelevant and wrong. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the claim is wrong on three counts:

Their study was of all women who had an abortion in 2001, including women on Medicaid and those who are uninsured--who would not have been able to access coverage for abortion. If we looked only at privately insured women, the percentage of procedures billed directly to insurance companies would be substantially higher than 13 percent.

The 13 percent statistic does not include women who pay for an abortion up front and then seek reimbursement from their insurance provider. This is common when a medical provider does not participate in a patient's insurance plan, as is often the case with small, specialized providers, including abortion providers.

Some of the women identified as paying out of pocket would likely have had insurance coverage for abortion care, but did not know they had it or chose not to use it for reasons of confidentiality. Given the stigma that still surrounds abortion, many women do not want their insurer or employer--or their spouse or parent who may be the primary policyholder--to learn that they had one.

"We could also take the two bills in Congress that seek to reduce abortion by supporting low-income women in all kinds of practical ways -- one with support for contraception and one without."

Jim reveals his real agenda. Despite his carefully nuanced positions, we know that Jim Wallis is anti-choice and opposes access to comprehensive reproductive health services for women. In this passage, Jim Wallis lets his guard down. In Jim Wallis' world, women's health care services are expendable. We can see this in his willingness to allow the debate over abortion to go even further and exclude access to contraception as well. Is the Stupak amendment not enough for him? No, it is not.

In short, Jim Wallis' arguments repeat the talking points of those who have sought to restrict access to abortion since it became legal in 1973. Wallis lays claim to the mantle of negotiator and centrist, the voice of reason in an acrimonious and angry debate. In fact he is the opposite. Wallis is antiabortion, and according to his essay, is open to seeing health care reform go beyond the abortion issue and also restrict access to contraception. His is not the voice of reason, but that of a culture warrior in extremis. The fact that he wears clerical garb should not distract us from the fact that he is more political than pastoral and that one of his goals is to make abortion illegal. Our mantra is "Safe, Legal and Accessible." His is "Dangerous, Illegal and Inaccessible."

I agree with Jim Wallis that the truth has become a casualty in this war. But if Jim Wallis and his conservative allies have their way, women will become another casualty.

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