Will Abortion Coverage Kill Health Care Reform?

After last night's presidential speech, the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners issued a statement that claimed to speak for "the faith community." He declares, "In his speech this evening, President Barack Obama made the commitments that a broad coalition in the faith community had asked for -- reform as a moral issue, affordable coverage for all, and no federal funding of abortion."

Really? The "faith community" -- whatever that is -- has demanded no federal funding for abortion?

There's no doubt that the religious right has demanded that. The coalition Stop The Abortion Mandate is abuzz this morning, questioning Obama's truthfulness in claiming no federal funds would be used to pay for abortions. To be clear, though, Stop the Abortion Mandate wants not just to stop "mandates," it wants to end legal abortion altogether. And Wallis does too, although he's more moderate and has endorsed abortion-reduction approaches that Stop the Abortion Mandate and its coalition partners are too strident to even consider (especially because many of them oppose contraception as well as abortion and would accept nothing short of an outright legal ban on abortion).

But as Ruth Marcus detailed yesterday, and as Dana has shown repeatedly and again this morning, coverage for abortion will continue if reform passes, both by private insurers and by virtue of exceptions to the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion services, except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the woman's life; in addition, states may override Hyde and fund abortion services). Stop the Abortion Mandate members know this -- which is why they not only defend Hyde but advocate for broadening it. They also want to kill health care reform and will find some way of proving that somehow tax dollars could be used to fund abortion, even though the Capps Amendment to the House bill takes great pains to prevent that.

Unlike the religious right, though, Wallis takes Obama's promise that reform wouldn't publicly finance abortion at face value and scores it as a victory for the "faith community." Once again, this sort of language falsely claims that "the faith community," whatever that is, opposes abortion. As a result, the claim that the "faith community," and not just the religious right, is worried about federal abortion funding -- and could derail the Democrats -- is quickly becoming the conventional wisdom.

Dan Gilgoff details this CW in a post that claims that "some of the most prominent" of progressive faith groups "have grown concerned with the House health-care bill's provisions for abortion coverage in the public health insurance plan." And David Brody writes, "If something is not done to address the abortion funding issue then the President and Nancy Pelosi are going to have a big problem on their hands."

This conventional wisdom reflects the utter inability of reporters like Gilgoff and Brody -- and the many reporters across the country who look to their blogs to have a finger on the pulse of religious constituencies -- to recognize that there are "people of faith" who support reproductive rights. Gilgoff portrays Catholics United, a relative newcomer launched in 2004, as "an influential progressive group" that opposes coverage for abortion services in a public option. But he ignores the fact that Catholics for Choice, which has been around since the 1970s, not only supports abortion coverage but advocates for full coverage of contraception as well. Or that the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is fighting not against abortion coverage but for it. These groups -- whose positions are more in line with Obama's secular base -- are apparently not even worth mentioning.

It's because of this sort of conventional wisdom -- that "people of faith" oppose abortion coverage -- that Obama, once a strong supporter of reproductive rights, is now taking pains to prove there will be no abortion coverage in health care reform rather than making a case for full reproductive health services. By helping to elevate Wallis' profile but not that of pro-reproductive freedom religious groups, Obama has helped define this supposed "faith community" -- potentially to the detriment of Americans' sexual health.

--Sarah Posner

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