Commentary by Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 6, 2009 ( – Deep in the thick of the health care brawl, the debate over abortion funding continues to grow even more bizarre – perhaps the word is “schizophrenic” – as the once-obscure issue inches closer to center stage.

One side of the abortion lobby, particularly House leadership, is working at fever pitch to break pro-life Democrats holding out for Hyde-amendment language in the health bill.  At the same time another side of the abortion lobby masterfully (either by flat-out doublespeak or uncannily calm forays into “compromise”) persists in portraying the health care bill as the very picture of home-grown American values on abortion. 

A few words to cut through this semantic Gordian knot are in order.

First of all, let it be clear that H.R. 3962 explicitly authorizes the public plan to cover abortions.  The bill calls for taxpayer subsidies to go to plans that cover abortions, and every U.S. region will be required to host at least one abortion-funding plan.  This much is not disputed.

We'll focus on the first part: the public plan's abortion coverage.  It is true that insurance premiums, not funds collected from taxpayers, will underwrite the plan's abortions.  But whether you want to call this “government/federal” funding or not (we'll just call the phenomenon “funds appropriated by the government”), the point that pro-life leaders are making about the arrangement is this: the bill's handling of abortion radically alters federal policy by ensuring that Americans are paying for abortions. 

Federal policy under the Hyde amendment operates by the theory, upheld by the Supreme Court, that there is a valid state interest in not encouraging elective abortion.  From this point of view, elective abortion is not just any medical procedure, and is certainly not “essential health care” – as Planned Parenthood feels it should be.  Establishments such as the Associated Press and even Time magazine agree that the bill radically changes this attitude.

Moreover, one would expect President Obama's health bill to alter federal abortion policy in just such a way: in 2007 he assured Planned Parenthood that he considered abortion “essential care” and that it would be “at the center, and at the heart of the [health care] plan that I propose.”  Accordingly, Planned Parenthood boasts affectionate ties with the White House over the effort.

But the moment abortion advocates try to sell this package to American citizens – who, as a rule, trend toward a far more conservative position on abortion than the likes of Planned Parenthood – is the moment things begin not to make sense. 

First, war was declared against the use of the term “government/federal funding.”  This stems from the bill's deft prohibition of so-called “public” funds for abortion, while leaving intact the reality of the aforementioned funding process. Hence, based upon a technicality, opposition to “government-funded abortion” began to be roundly mocked as false. 

A recent example of such a salvo came in a neat, if seemingly contrived, package presented in a New York Times article. There, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service's assertion that the abortion-funding premiums “may be classified as federal funds or government funds” was conveniently contrasted with a Harvard professor's sniff at the definition as “sophistry.”

Altogether, however, the strategy was a brilliant move: pro-lifers, stripped of a term that would allow open discussion of the alarming reality in the bill, were pushed into a corner. 

But the very best example of the word games that are characterizing the Democrat approach to the abortion debate, came from President Obama himself, who in August called the government abortion funding claim a “fabrication” – though promptly shook its finger at that term. Later that month, he called it a “misunderstanding.”  “Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions,” Obama assured.

How does this jive with Obama's assurance to Planned Parenthood in 2007?  Michigan Democrat Rep. Bart Stupak found out.

Stupak has been leading the charge – blocked by Nancy Pelosi and company – to include language in the House bill that echoes the 33-year-old Hyde amendment, and thus restricts government-appropriated funds from abortion.  Wondering why Democrat leadership would not honor the president's anti-abortion pledge, he says, he gave President Obama a telephone call.

Astonishingly, Stupak told CNS News that Obama justified his statement by making a cryptic distinction between a theoretical “our plan”  – which would, supposedly, not federally fund abortions – and the existing plan in the House bill.

“[Obama] said: 'What it says is, under 'my' plan,' meaning the President's plan,” Stupak told CNS News, in discussing Obama's August statement.  “And I said, 'With all due respect sir, you do not have a plan. The only plan we have out is the House plan.” 

“So, I don't know if it's a game of semantics, or what,” said Stupak.

It's this “game of semantics,” of apparently purposeful verbal obfuscation, that has been the real spectacle in the past several months.  But especially interesting in the last week or so has been the theatrical performances of Democrat leadership – one feverish eye on the time bomb of public opinion – as they struggle to clear the abortion hurdle.

Enter the Ellsworth amendment, a so-called “compromise” measure that would put government-collected funds at one further remove from abortions by hiring out a contractor to write the checks.  For the USCCB and other pro-lifer leaders – as NRLC's Douglas Johnson eloquently noted – this was about as helpful as a “fig leaf made out of cellophane.”

Yet somehow, the amendment seemed to awaken the peaceful, common ground-loving fuzzballs in Capitol Hill's most battle-worn abortion juggernauts.

“[Ellsworth] and others who have strong pro-life positions want to see a strong health-care bill passed, and they are working very hard to find language that achieves what honors their values and the commitment not to have federal funds used for abortion,” gushed the 100% NARAL-approved Nancy Pelosi.

“We are concerned,” Planned Parenthood vice president Laurie Rubiner explained cordially, “that this new language could tip the balance away from women's access to reproductive health care.”

“We are not enthusiastic about his language, but we won't object to it,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the leader of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

Contrast this with the reaction to Stupak's attempts to include actual Hyde amendment language.

“There are those of us who want to see health reform passed and those who want to use it for their demagogue issues,” fumed Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards about Stupak's efforts.  “Stupak has lost the big picture, in my opinion. He's trying to re-litigate the abortion issue, and it's unfortunate to see.”  For NARAL, of course, Stupak's bid is nothing short of a “shameful abortion ban plot.”

As for Pelosi, she has not commented directly on Stupak's amendment, but amid a vicious ideological stalemate that has consumed the nation's health care debate, Stupak admitted that the House speaker was “not happy with” her fellow Democrat.

No warm commendation for holding true to his pro-life values?  That's not very like her.