There is no issue more divisive or distressing – or more manipulated in service to bloc-headed politics – than abortion.
As the Senate debates healthcare reform this week, abortion confronts us like an unwanted pregnancy itself. Most of us wish it would just go away. But there is a solution, if we focus on the right question: how to get government out of the issue entirely.
The first step is to create space for an honest national conversation about abortion – something we haven’t had since Roe v. Wade. That 1973 Supreme Court ruling made a weak constitutional argument (privacy) the basis for national policy. This deprived states and voters from wrestling with – and settling – what some consider a religious issue, and others, a matter of civil rights.
Ever since, because propaganda is easier than policy, we’ve helped the cause of bumper-sticker makers more than desperate women, at a cost of 50 million abortions.
Our labels betray our disrespect for honest disagreement: “Anti-choice extremists” might be otherwise known as churches. A “baby killer” could be a physician acting in accord with her own careful conscience. “Reproductive services” can abruptly curtail reproduction. And “pro-life” suggests there’s a “pro-death” camp.
Today, we’ve resumed howling at one another in our code of choice – moving only those who already agree with us – after the House of Representatives delivered a bundle of joy last month called the Stupak amendment. The Senate bill uses different language, but the question it addresses – and the critical votes it swings – is the same: Will taxpayer money be used for abortion services?
Rather than force citizens troubled by abortion to pay for the procedure, Stupak says that those who support choice should have to fund it. (For the clearest explanation I’ve heard, listen to this.)
If every national decision required us to reconcile what “works” (expedience) with what’s “right” (morality), or to determine what portion of public funding is how “fungible,” we would never decide anything. So we should step back from Stupak, take a deep breath, and be clear about the problem we’re trying to solve.
Imperatives for each side
Abortion is a matter of intense, personal, and private conscience. So we cannot fund it with the blunt (and endlessly haggled-over) instrument of public money. Nor can we legislate it out of existence.
Imagine, instead, that we decided to get government out of the abortion business entirely. That would lead to a practical imperative for each side:
A. Those of us who would protect abortion as a civil right should raise money and support it the way it matters, by making a donation to Planned Parenthood. With the total cost of all insurance-reimbursed abortions running $63 million a year (based on Guttmacher Institute data), the shortfall resulting from a Stupak-type law could be covered by a modest increase in donations to Planned Parenthood’s $1 billion budget.
B. Those of us who would try to outlaw abortion as a matter of moral conscience, rather than drive it underground, should do something real to live up to that moral position, and send a check to causes that look after babies with fetal alcohol syndrome (the leading known cause of mental retardation and birth defects). And they should adopt, foster, and heal every one of the unwanted and abused children brought to term in the name of religious principle.
President Obama has sagely said he wants a healthcare bill to remain neutral on abortion. And it should be.
The Senate should play its role as the cool saucer containing the House’s hot excess. To avert a paralyzing standoff, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada should adopt language that explicitly bars public funding for abortion, unambiguously allows private premiums to cover it, and requires the new insurance exchanges to offer at least one plan that doesn’t cover elective abortions, if they offer paid plans that do.
And to be fair, the tax exemption for employer-sponsored healthcare benefits that underwrites abortions for middle-class and wealthy Americans should also specifically exclude it.
Practically, that could limit some women’s access to abortion, but the impact would probably be small, since the majority of abortions aren’t billed to insurers.
Tomorrow, galvanized by protest politics passing for substance, you’ll see coat hangers waving in the streets. More than 121,000 have been mailed to the 20 pro-choice Democrats who voted “yes” on the Stupak amendment.
When you see such excess, bear in mind these five features of the abortion debate:
1. Men don’t get it. They literally can’t. So it’s colossally ironic that the Senate and Supreme Court, both 80 percent male, are considered competent to debate this question.
2. Special interests have a special interest in perpetuating conflict, not resolving it. They need an urgent “battle” to fire up activists and raise funds.
3. Unwanted pregnancy is the symptom. Now’s the time to exert more effort and resources on the cause, with better sex education, tax and family policy, access to birth control, and encouraging a culture of restraint.
4. We can’t give Roman Catholic bishops and the evangelical community the moral high ground. Not until they apply the same principled fervor to, say, the CIA’s deployment of unmanned drones, which are presently (if inadvertently) killing Pakistani children with Hellfire missiles. Nor can we take seriously their advice about adoption, until they’ve personally committed themselves to every baby suffering from drug or alcohol poisoning, and every abused child.
5. Nor can we allow abortion-rights advocates to get away with framing abortion as a healthcare benefit like any other. It is not simply a “medical service.” We know it’s different. Otherwise, we could reconcile medicine’s race to secure the earliest possible viability in the womb with an intervention that ends it altogether.
The real threat
Stupak isn’t the threat it’s being spun to be. The real threat is our determination to make abortion a question for government to answer at all.
For millenniums, abortion has happened. Lawful or not, it probably always will – especially in societies that refuse, as we have, to do enough to prevent it in the first place.
It will never be legislated out of existence. It will only be left alone, as a matter of private conscience, when it is only funded with private money.
Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor on December 1, 2009.