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Steven Waldman

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Killing Grandma vs. Killing Babies/Fetuses

Posted: 08/12/09 07:16 PM ET

It might be tempting to equate the assertion that Obamacare definitely pays for abortions with claims that Obama's death panels will kill your grandmother and siphon money from your bank account. .

They're actually different. The death panel and raid-your-bank-account ideas are lies. The abortion charge is merely a big exaggeration.

Let's go to the tape. A Family Research Council ad features a very worried elderly looking gentleman talking to his wife:

MAN: They won't pay for my surgery. What are we going to do?


WOMAN: But honey you cant live this way?

MAN: And to think that planned parenthood is included in the government run health care plan and spending tax dollars on abortions. They won't pay for my surgery but we're forced to pay for abortions.

For starters, it actually is possible that there may be a man out there whose surgery might not get paid for. We know this because private insurers do it all the time. For instance, if this chap had wanted to pectoral implants, his surgery would have been denied by a private insurer and hopefully would be by a public insurer too.

And the reference to Planned Parenthood? Actually, that's true-ish, too. The Senate Health Committee bill includes provisions for "medically necessary" treatments provided by "essential community providers." This could indeed include Planned Parenthood.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean anything: Planned Parenthood already gets money from the federal government for family planning services and they're not allowed to use it directly for abortion. The Senate bill does not mandate abortion BUT it doesn't close the door to that possibility either. That's why Senator Robert Casey, a pro-life Democrat, voted against the amendment. "It's too broad and that the way it could be interpreted down the road might include something like abortion," he said.

And what about the ad's phrase, "spending tax dollars on abortions"? There was a convoluted debate about this in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. I've written about the details here, but the bottom line is that the legislation does not mandate government paying for abortion -- but again leaves open that possibility.

Well, you might say, the Family Research Council ad doesn't say abortion "might or might not be paid for by the government," it says taxpayers will be paying for abortions. Isn't that a big difference, truth-wise?

Ah, but you weren't watching the ad closely enough. At the very beginning of the ad, for roughly two seconds, these words appear: "Will this be our future." Get it? Technically speaking, they're not saying this definitely will happen; they're just askin' whether it might. (For more on the FRC justification for the ad see this exchange).

Will the government pay for abortions under the health care bills?

Definitely? No. Probably? Hard to tell. Possibly? Yep.

While I'm not excusing Family Research Council's exaggeration, the Democrats should have seen this coming a mile away. In fact, Chris Korzen argues that Democrats made a good faith effort to find common ground in the House bill. But if the goal was creating a sense of clear neutrality, they missed the mark. (By the way, pro-life efforts to solve the problem didn't work either)

No one thinks the Democrats will, or should, try to come up with something that will win over the Family Research Council, which would oppose health care even if abortion were clearly prohibited. But if you want health care reform, the fact that the Democrats haven't figured out a way of assuaging pro-life Democrats at this point seems risky in the extreme.

For one thing, it's forced the Catholic Church to the sidelines. The Bishops want to be able to support health care reform -- and the Catholic Church wouldn't be a bad group to have on the White House's side. But the delay in working out the abortion compromise has left them unable to endorse. (See today's letter from the Bishops)

Democrats need to decide. Do they want to neutralize abortion as an issue in the health care debate -- as Obama has suggested -- or use it as a vehicle to expand abortion rights? If it's the former, and they want to de-fuse this bomb, what exactly are they waiting for?

UPDATE: Several commenters have suggested that the Hyde Amendment already prohibits federal spending on abortion. The House Energy and Commerce Committee made reference to the Hydle amendment. But then they added this: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as preventing the public health insurance option from providing for or prohibiting coverage' of abortion services. That appears to partially de-fang the Hyde Amendment and give the authority to determine whether a public option covers abortion to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

You can read the actual language here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2009/07/abortion-kabuki-dance-and-heal.html

UPDATE2: A possible solution is to have the public plan's basic package not include abortion but then offer consumers the ability to buy, with their own money, a rider that covers abortion services. More on that idea here.

Reprinted from Steven Waldman's blog on Beliefnet