Could abortion deep-six Democrats' efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system?
Probably not, but strife over the issue has already helped delay Congressional action until after the August recess. And it could play an even larger role as debate continues this fall.
It's not a far-fetched idea to assume that health care reform could become a catalyst for government-subsidized destruction of unborn human life. Although President Barack Obama has soft-peddled the abortion issue since taking office (rescinding the Mexico City Policy being one exception), he's known for dispensing kickbacks to his liberal supporters, namely through stimulus legislation. It's not unreasonable to assume he would use health care reform similarly.
A coalition of Catholic Bishops, concerned about that possibility, sent a letter to Congress and the White House in mid-July demanding that health care reform "excludes abortion coverage or any other provisions that threaten the sanctity of life."
Religious conservatives aren't the only political demographic uneasy with the abortion implications of Obama's health care revamp, either. In late June, about two dozen House Democrats sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi pledging opposition to any reform bill that includes abortion coverage.
More recently, conservative-leaning Democrats have kicked up some dust over what they see as a "hidden mandate" for abortion coverage in the president's health care proposals. No legislation mentions abortion by name, which opens the door for more government-funded abortions, they say. Some pro-life Democrats want a provision specifically excluding abortion from reform efforts.
Obama has complicated the issue by declining to clarify his position. Asked by CBS whether he would support or oppose federally funded insurance coverage for abortion, Obama straddled the fence. He reiterated his pro-choice position but emphasized that Washington, historically, doesn't finance "abortions as part of government-funded health care."
Well, we already knew that. How about a definite stance on the issue, Mr. President?
Obama's staff has also been less than forthright the American people. Appearing on a recent edition of Fox News Sunday, the president's budget chief, Peter Orszag, refused to rule out abortion coverage from a health care overhaul, but he squirmed out of giving a definite yes or no answer.
"I am not willing to say explicitly that right now," he said when asked whether the White House opposed including abortion coverage. "It's obviously a controversial issue, and it's one of the questions that is playing out in this debate."
It's an ironic situation. The White House has sent signals that it plans to avoid opening new fronts in the culture war, at least for the time being. One prime example is Obama's refusal to push the Freedom of Choice Act in the near future. But much as he tries to avoid it, the abortion controversy keeps coming back to haunt him.
Once Congress again takes up health care reform in September, the issue could play an even larger role. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer recently admitted that federal funding for abortion has become a hot potato in the Democratic Caucus. It has the potential to be one of several factors that could further delay, or even permanently derail, the president's efforts.
The Achilles' heel might be Blue Dog Democrats, who hail from conservative districts where a vote for taxpayer-funded abortions could mean the end of their political fortunes in the mid-term elections next year.
Polling is already trending in favor of Republicans and against Democrats. The president's approval rating has declined steadily since January, and a new Associated Press survey finds that a majority of Americans are back to thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Obama has little to worry about -- his name isn't on the ballot for several years -- but House Democrats don't have that luxury. In particular, the Blue Dogs are being forced to weigh the political pressure coming from Congressional leaders and the White House with the political reality of their districts.
Already, some conservative Democrats in the House have taken heat for voting in favor of cap-and-trade. And no matter how hard the president and Democratic leadership push, they won't want to add a yes vote on federal funding for abortion to their list of legislative sins.
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