Barack Obama stood before a Planned Parenthood gathering and said, "In my mind, reproductive care is essential care."
That was July 17, 2007, when he was a first term senator in an uphill battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, speaking about health care reform.
"We're going to set up a public plan that all persons and all women can access if they don't have health insurance," candidate Obama continued. "It will be a plan that will provide all essential services, including reproductive services, as well as mental health services and disease management services, because part of our interest is to make sure that we're putting more money into preventive care."
Though not uttering the word abortion, the meaning of "reproductive care" is clear in the context of speaking to Planned Parenthood.
The health care reform legislation in the House and Senate does allow funding for abortion. Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled committees in the House and Senate have rejected amendments to apply the language of the Hyde Amendment -- which prohibits public funding of abortions -- to any public plan or government subsidized private plans under the reform scheme.
But the Obama administration has spent the last several months digging their heels into the claim that the health care plan would not cover abortion -- challenging the conclusions of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the watchdog website Factcheck.org, not to mention the pro-life community.
On Aug. 19, President Obama told a coalition of faith leaders in a forum on Blog Talk Radio, "You've heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion. Not true. These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation. And that is that we look out for one another: That I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper. And in the wealthiest nation on earth right now, we are neglecting to live up to that call."
Factcheck.org, which some conservatives have accused of leaning left, reported in an Aug. 21 analysis, "Private plans that cover abortion also could be purchased with the help of federal subsidies. Therefore, we judge that the president goes too far when he calls the statements that government would be funding abortions 'fabrications.'"
The very next day, the president spoke at the Democratic National Committee headquarters as part of the Organizing for America National Health Care Forum.
"There are no plans under health reform to revoke the existing prohibition on using federal taxpayer dollars for abortions," Obama told the DNC gathering. "Nobody is talking about changing that existing provision, the Hyde Amendment. Let's be clear about that. It's just not true."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee, among others, have taken the White House to task on this matter. The Hyde Amendment is included in each year's annual Health and Human Services appropriation and has been since 1977. It stops HHS funding for abortions only in that specific fiscal year it is voted on in the appropriation. But, the health care overhaul being pushed in Congress won't be funded through the annual HHS appropriations, thus, would not be subject to the Hyde Amendment.
A Congressional Research Service memo (pdf) to pro-life Congressman Chris Smith said as much. "In summary, Section 207 of H.R. 3200 creates a Health Insurance Exchange Trust Fund, appropriates amounts to the Fund, and requires payments from the Fund," said an Aug. 28 CRS memo. "If enacted, all of these actions would be authorized without any further legislative action, such as a further appropriation in a subsequent act."
In other words, the health exchange is a separate pool of money than the HHS budget, thus is not governed by the Hyde Amendment.
It seems unlikely the White House was not be aware of this since the application of the Hyde language to the bill has been a significant part of the debate over the summer.
A bipartisan amendment by Democrat Bart Stupak and Republican Joe Pitts failed to pass Chairman Henry Waxman's House Energy and Commerce Committee by just one vote. The same committee, however, narrowly passed an amendment to the bill sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps that would leave it up to private insurances companies -- getting federal subsidies as part of the "exchange" established under the health care reform package -- whether to fund abortions.
While it didn't prompt a reaction from Congressman Joe Wilson, Obama again denied that abortion would be covered by federal funds under the health care reform while speaking to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9. "One more misunderstanding I want to clear up -- under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions," Obama said.
Senior White House Advisor David Axelrod said after the speech that night, "We've talked to the [Catholic] bishops, and the president made his position clear on this. Hopefully, they will come to see that the assertion he made tonight is accurate."
In a Sept. 30 letter to senators, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, "So far, the health reform bills considered in committee, including the new Senate Finance Committee bill, have not met President Obama's challenge of barring use of the federal dollars for abortion."
When ABC News's George Stephanopoulos asked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sept. 13, "So you're saying it will go beyond what we have seen so far in the House and explicitly rule out any public funding for abortion?" the secretary responded, "Well, that's exactly what the president said and I think that's what he intends that the bill he signs will do."
A little presidential leadership could likely go a long way in compelling Congress to expressly prohibit taxpayer funded abortion. That is, if it is a priority for Obama. There is nothing in the president's political background to suggest it is a priority. But public opinion clearly supports limiting funding.
A Rasmussen poll in September asked respondents, "Should health insurance paid for or subsidized with government funding be required to cover abortions, be prohibited from covering abortions, or have no requirements concerning abortions?"
A mere 13 percent said "required" to cover abortions, 32 percent said there should be no requirements, 7 percent weren't sure, while 48 percent said "prohibited from covering abortions."
An International Communications Research poll done in mid-September found that 67 percent oppose federally-funded abortions.
Earlier this month, the conference of Catholic bishops sent their sternest letter to date to members of Congress, saying if the bill does not include language "ensuring no taxpayer money for abortion," they would "have to oppose the health care bill vigorously."
Yet the White House insisted twice last week that the Hyde Amendment or a vague reference to federal law already specifically prohibits abortion funding. That's almost a departure from what Sebelius pledged. It certainly contradicted the previous day's letter from the bishops. But by this point, the best the White House could do was say the bishops were misinterpreting the law.
"There may be a legal interpretation that has been lost here, but there's a fairly clear federal law prohibiting the federal use of money for abortion," Gibbs said. "I think it is -- again, it's exceedingly clear in the law."
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