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Difficult bottom line for some pro-choice advocates: Accept ban language or scuttle health care reform?

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., spoke about his opposition to funding abortion in any potential legislation on health care reform on an Oct. 27 C-SPAN broadcast.

In the great public debates of our time, the political right does a better job of grabbing the country’s big symbols than the left.

In the Vietnam War era, the hawks captured the Stars and Stripes. If you didn’t support the war, you weren’t a patriot and you had no right to fly the flag.

Now, it’s happening again. The right has grabbed for the cross and other religious symbols in the debate on whether abortion should be paid for in any sort of health care reform that Congress can stumble upon.  With their loud voices and bully pulpits, the combination of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Christian right have teamed up to turn health care reform into an abortion debate of good (abortion foes) versus evil (godless choicers).

Pols, of course, want to be seen hanging out with the angels. Thus, abortion, protected in law, is outlawed in public health care, at least in the House version of reform that includes the funding ban amendment sponsored by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak. Separation of church and state? Forget it on this issue.

But the reality is there are people of faith who support abortion rights and who are frustrated by how the abortion debate has become so central to the health care reform struggle.

“I am pro-choice because of my faith, not in spite of it,” said Kelli Clement, a candidate for ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Association and co-chair of the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “I believe in the moral agency of human beings, the moral agency of women. Women are endowed by their creator with wisdom, sensitivity and imagination. We’re able to understand our past, the realities of our present and imagine our future. Women are able to understand our choices better than the government and politicians.”

The idea that the Catholic bishops and the Christian right hold the high moral ground “drives me nuts,” Clement said.

She is far from being alone. Nationally, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice includes a cross section of mainline Protestant churches and Jewish organizations. There are religious organizations, including Catholics, who support choice as a part of health care. And there were religious organizations supporting abortion rights long before Roe v. Wade.

But their voices always seem muted.

“It’s a challenge because of the way others are organized,” said Kiely Todd Roska, executive director of the Minnesota religious choice coalition. “We don’t have a single authority speaking for our religious body. We don’t have the same structure.”

Kiely Todd Roska
Kiely Todd Roska

Beyond that, the choice position is far more complex than the simple “No!” of those who oppose abortion.

“As religious people, we believe in compassion and support and understanding for those who have difficult decisions to make,” said Todd Roska. “But a complicated moral argument is hard to fit in a 30-second sound bite or on a bumper sticker. We [pro-choice religious leaders] are trying to reach out to the media for a more lengthy examination of this. It’s definitely a challenge.”

Said Clement, “No person I’ve ever known thinks that abortion is something a woman wants to do. It’s a terribly difficult choice. It’s a sacred choice. But no one chooses for you. No church. No insurance company and certainly the Congress shouldn’t get to choose for me.”

The hope among the pro-choice organizations is that the Senate won’t melt in the abortion heat.

“The Catholic bishops certainly have a right to their opinion,” said Todd Roska, “but to say that their position is the law that everyone lives by is simply wrong. That should be where separation of church and state comes in.”

There’s an effort being made by pro-choice religious leaders to let pols know — through letters to newspapers, calls to members of Congress — that people of faith come in all sorts of beliefs on the abortion issue.

 “They need to know that there are huge numbers of religious people who are pro-choice,” said Todd Roska.

But if the Senate does accept the House language — or if any final reform bill that comes out of conference committee prohibits any public money for abortion — is there a fallback position for the coalition?  

“People need [health] coverage,” said Todd Roska. “It’s unfortunate that need is being sidetracked by another abortion discussion that’s the same every time. The Catholic bishops have made abortion their No. 1 moral issue. Health care ends up on the back burner.  It shouldn’t happen, but it always seems to.”

She implied that she’s inclined to believe that abortion rights in this bill might have to be sacrificed for health care reform.

Clement seemed to be in the same place.

“I want lawmakers to uphold their oaths,” said Clement. “I want them to uphold the rights of other people. Abortion is a legal form of medical care. It’s federally protected. I want it supported.”

At all costs?

There was a long pause.

“It would be detrimental to hold up health care reform,” she said.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/17/2009 - 11:45 am.

    Actually, it might be better in the long run for the current bills to fail. In spite of right-wing I-told-you-so propaganda and crows of “success” from the anti-choice groups that will follow, we will not see any real reduction in the per-capita amounts we spend.

    Neither bill addresses the real reason costs go up every year and will continue to do so unless insurers and drug companies are either killed off or regulated with an iron hand. So far, we are letting these for-profit entities manage our health care in ways that benefit their bottom lines but do not necessarily help sick people at all.

    I suggest we start over, this time with single-payer ON the table.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/17/2009 - 12:28 pm.

    The problem pro-abortion groups are faced with is that there is no way to make killing live, viable, perfectly healthy babies morally acceptable to Americans that have not signed on to the left’s “run what ya brung” code of ethical human behavior.

    Religion has nothing to do with it for many people…the wrong of declaring abortion “a choice” is coded directly into our DNA.

    The left will never succeed in making abortion acceptable to people that have an undiluted sense of right and wrong.

    Not in a three minute sound bite; not in an hour long presentation; not ever.

  3. Submitted by Shannon Drury on 11/17/2009 - 01:02 pm.

    I second the comment above. No single payer? No support for reproductive freedom? (read the bills closely and you’ll see that even contraception is not guaranteed.)


  4. Submitted by Shannon Drury on 11/17/2009 - 01:06 pm.

    By comment above I DID mean Bernice, and not Thomas Swift. “Live, viable, perfectly healthy babies” are in newborn wards, not barely clinging to a woman’s uterine lining.

  5. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 11/17/2009 - 02:45 pm.

    Shannon and Bernice, don’t be foolish. You’ve seen how hard it’s been to get to this point. It’s been 15 years since the last attempt at reform. That came almost 30 years after Medicare, and Medicare passed only on the fourth attempt. That’s how tough this is. If you blow off the reform that’s gotten this far, expect all the problems we have now to continue for a long time to come before reform is tried again — and the fight will be just as vicious then.

    If we get something passed, incremental improvements can be made, including abortion coverage and making more people eligible for the public plan. Stupak and the blue dogs just pulled the old tactic of attaching something your opponents can’t stand to something they want very much and forcing them to take what they don’t want or give up what they do want. We can do that too. Conservatives love their big spending programs in the defense bill. We can attach our own provision to that or something else they want badly. There will be multiple opportunities.

    But if reform fails now, we will have many years to wait for the next try, which will be no more likely to be something we like.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/17/2009 - 04:39 pm.

    “Live, viable, perfectly healthy babies” are in newborn wards, not barely clinging to a woman’s uterine lining.”

    Words fail me.

  7. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 11/17/2009 - 08:26 pm.

    Finally! (to TS).
    Laws and prohibitions against abortion through one means or another is pointless. The number of abortions IS THE SAME whether it’s legal or illegal. Only less safe. Mom goes too. (There are statistics on this.)

  8. Submitted by donald maxwell on 11/17/2009 - 09:31 pm.

    If the current legislation were in fact a step, albeit small, toward a good health care system, I could agree that it should be passed, warts and all. But it really doesn’t look like even a small step in the right direction; instead the insurance industry becomes even more solidly ensconced.

    Now, the people who work in the health insurance industry are citizens and deserve good jobs, too. But not as a part of our health care costs. They should get jobs making something useful.

    The only way I could see the current legislation moving us in the right direction is that it will make insurance an even more egregious cancer on the health care system. And that might bring on the massive public revolt against insurance that will get true reform, in spite of Fox.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/17/2009 - 11:17 pm.

    Bernice Vetsch has nailed down the issue and the need to pursue a single payer plan. I agree.

  10. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/18/2009 - 01:51 am.

    I agree with #1 that the health care sausage being produced in Washington is a real stinker and has migrated far from true health care reform.

    We started out with an economic goal of reducing the overall outlay of all Americans for health care (what is it now? 16% of GDP?). Reducing it by even 5% or 10% would be a real accomplishment, and would pay dividends for many years.

    But at this time the economic metric mainly under discussion is the impact on the federal budget (CBO analysis). Of course we’re concerned about the federal budget! But the aggregate health care budgets summed across all American households is a great deal more important.

    We can’t accomodate all the parochial interest groups and save the public money on health care.

    Real health care reform may be dependent upon prior political reform (mainly, campaign financing). Until then, legislation like the House and Senate are now considering may be all they are capable of. Individually and collectively, they are trapped in the orbit of their campaign contributors.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/18/2009 - 03:51 pm.

    For anyone who wants a brief summary of what’s wrong with the House bill (why they keep calling it “reform” is a mystery to me), I recommend the following “Health Deform” article by Carol Miller.

    It appeared on November 16 in The Albuquerque Journal and the following day at

    Ms. Miller describes the ways in which this version of reform will harm the poor and middle classes. It would cause much the same hardship as the Massachusetts Plan, Governor Romney’s misbegotten baby: Hugely expensive, huge increases in private and public bureaucracy, punitive, and the perpetuator of inequality of care based on income.

  12. Submitted by Carol Logie on 11/18/2009 - 08:41 pm.

    Look, conservatives had 8 years of “pro-life” rule, and abortion went up, not down. Why wasn’t it banned? Because it is too valuable as a political tool. So when people spout nonsense about the Right’s undiluted sense of right and wrong, I have to laugh. They need abortion to keep flogging the base with.

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