Evangelical writer Jim Wallis has until now remained strong on the idea that nationalized health care should not force Americans to pay for killing unborn children. But, as May push comes to July shove, Wallis’s liberal friends are giving him a “wedgie.” Now, he seems to be wavering. He says he hopes that abortion will not become a “wedge issue,” one that will prevent us from enacting a sweeping takeover of the health care industry.
Let’s unpack that wedge issue comment. It stems from the pens of leftist thinkers like Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? To such minds, the right to life of one-third of a nation is merely an annoyance, the death of millions of innocent unborn children is a distraction from the real business of politics — the redistribution of wealth. Lenin said it before Frank and more succinctly: Kto kovo — who gets?
Abortion is not a wedge issue at all. It is a bridge issue between the parties, between religious and ethnic groups. President Reagan recognized that. He reached out — successfully — to Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
Abortion was a major factor in Reagan winning the votes of 27 percent of Democrats. The Reagan Democrats were the key to his astounding political victories. For millions of Catholics and Evangelicals, the party of their parents was the Democratic Party. Reagan echoed FDR’s “rendezvous with destiny” and let it be known he had voted for FDR four times.
Abortion was an important factor in Reagan’s first landslide in 1980. President Jimmy Carter’s refusal to support federal funding of abortion spurred the third-party challenge of Independent John Anderson. Anderson’s direct mail appeals to liberal lists pounded away at the theme of extending full federal funding to abortion-on-demand. It was, in fact, the only major policy difference he had with Carter. Anderson’s appeal fatally weakened Carter’s campaign in several states. Anderson’s strong pro-abortion position enabled him to tip into the Reagan column such states as Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Vermont, and Wisconsin When Reagan carried some states previously thought to be liberal bastions, the effect was one of shock and awe. Reagan’s powerful performance contributed mightily to his success as an extraordinary politician. For millions of blue-collar Democrats, Reagan’s values were their values.
Reagan made a point of addressing major religious groups; he spoke to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1980. This was President Carter’s own denomination. Reagan told this largest legislative gathering in the world “you can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you.” The SBC messengers got the message — and cheered heartily.
As President, Reagan spoke of his opposition to abortion to the Knights of Columbus in 1982 and the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983. He became the only sitting president to publish a book. In 1984, he wrote: Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation. Reagan’s historic 1984 landslide was certainly not about abortion alone.
For Reagan’s most vocal opponents, abortion was key. Lawrence Lader, the co-founder of NARAL, wrote: “Abortion is central to everything in life and how we want to live it.” This explains why advocates for the government takeover of health care are so adamant about including abortion coverage.
Harold Ickes, Jr. is well-known in liberal circles. He’s been a fund-raiser for his party and a key backer of Bill and Hillary Clinton for decades. As long ago as 1988, he weighed in in his home state of New York against then-Sen. Al Gore. This was Gore’s first run for President and arguably his best shot. Gore came into New York State with 25 percent in the polls — leading a crowded Democratic pack. But Ickes was outraged by Gore’s position against federal funding of abortion. Ickes led a chorus of boos against Gore at a big meeting of liberal donors. Gore’s standing in the New York Democratic primary plummeted. He won just 10 percent of the vote and limped out of the Empire State. Gore’s campaign collapsed and he turned around on federal funding of abortion.
Why would Ickes’ wealthy fellow liberals care so much about federal funding for abortion? After all, New York State, led by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, would continue to pay for abortions. And Ickes’ friends would themselves never need a public subsidy in order to avail themselves of abortion.
With Ickes and his fellow travelers on abortion it is absolutely essential that we cease calling it wrong. Federal funding for abortion is the indispensable piece of the puzzle. They have had abortion-on-demand — what they always wanted — ever since Roe. The Supreme Court has only rarely failed to deliver on their radical pro-abortion agenda.But it fell short in Harris v. McRae (1980) — and then only by the slenderest of margins, 5-4. In that important case, the Court’s majority said that the Hyde Amendment forbidding the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions was constitutional.
For men like Ickes denying federal funding impermissibly taints abortion. There’s something wrong with it if the federal government cannot fully and generously pay for it. For them, 48 million abortions are not enough.
Abraham Lincoln went to New York City 128 years before Al Gore went there. He recognized that his opponents would not be satisfied with holding their slaves in bondage, selling their slaves across state lines, and even pursuing their runaway slaves into the free states. So what else could Lincoln’s adversaries want? “This, and this only,” he famously said at Cooper Union “[We must]: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated — we must place ourselves avowedly with them.”
This is why Harold Ickes, Jr. and Barack Obama cannot yield on abortion-as-health care.
Obama sincerely wants to end all the controversy over abortion. He wants to end it by including abortion in his government takeover of health care. Then, he hopes, we will have to cease calling it wrong. Then, it will be officially designated as an indispensable and indisputable part of a mandated federal benefits package.
Obama has never called abortion wrong. He says he wants to reduce abortion — when he’s talking with the Pope — but most of the time he says he simply wants to reduce the need for abortion. To accomplish this, he wants to open the floodgates of federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the world’s largest traffickers in abortion.
This is why Jim Wallis’s position is so precarious. For liberal activists, abortion-on-demand, fully funded, constitutionally protected, and no longer called wrong is the sine qua non of any national health care scheme. Jim Wallis will learn this to his sorrow.
(A special thanks to Robert Morrison of the Family Research Council for assistance with this column.)