Abortion and health care (again)

Terry highlighted one of the more glaring holes in some of the stories covering the public health insurance debate. There have been some other problems with the media's look at the abortion debate.

Last week the Associated Press had a piece about how pro-life House Democrats oppose the leadership's health care bill because under it, taxpayer funds could be used for abortions:

Abortion is not mentioned in the 1,018-page bill that Democratic leaders hope will be approved by the last of three House committees this week. Supporters of the legislation say that means the bill is neutral.

But abortion opponents say the bill's silence is precisely the problem.

Without an explicit prohibition on federal funding for abortion, it could be included in taxpayer-subsidized coverage offered through the health overhaul plan, abortion opponents say. . . .

The Supreme Court has established a woman's right to abortion, but federal law prohibits government funds from being used to pay for the procedure in most cases. However, nearly 90 percent of employer-based private insurance plans routinely cover abortion.

Or take this from Karen Tumulty at Time:

If an explicit ban on abortion coverage were imposed, say sources involved in writing the legislation on Capitol Hill, it could have much further-reaching implications than the Hyde Amendment ever did. It could, in fact, have the effect of denying abortion coverage to women who now receive it under their private insurance plans. Nearly 90% of insurers cover abortion procedures, according to a 2002 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization whose statistics are relied upon by both sides of the abortion debate.

First off, it's just not true that 90 percent of employer-based private insurance plans routinely cover abortions, as the AP wrote. (See Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' comments in the New York Times here.) And even the Time magazine's more moderate use of the statistic has problems, which we'll see below. Before we get to that, let's just ask the insurers whether they routinely cover abortion. Here's a Congressional Quarterly report from a few weeks ago:

Most people with employer-sponsored insurance also must pay for abortions out of their own pocket. "Most insurers offer plans that include this coverage but most employers choose not to offer it as part of their benefits package" said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry's trade association.

Okay, so the insurers say that most employee-based insurance programs don't cover abortion, although I've yet to see anything to substantiate that claim. Beyond that, though, the Alan Guttmacher Institute survey was just that -- a survey. It wasn't a comprehensive report. It just used voluntary responses to see if insurers cover abortion. Considering that the statistic includes abortions that are procured to save the life of the mother, the statistic doesn't have much meaning, as John McCormack notes here.

It's just good to get the basic facts down when heading into a big abortion fight. That way you're not left saying untrue things, as Tumulty did above, when she wrote that a move to public insurance that doesn't include abortion benefits would mean that women would have to give up an abortion benefit that they currently have.

Now even though Members of Congress are mocking the idea that they should read the health care bill, this abortion fight is the last thing that proponents of public health insurance need as they're trying to pass legislation.

The Los Angeles Times has a story about publicly funded abortion becoming a big obstacle in this legislative fight. Apart from the absence of any discussion of Catholic bishops or other religious groups such as mainline Protestants who you might expect to be big voices in the fight, it's actually pretty fairly written, getting perspectives from pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Democrats (Republicans playing a diminished role because of their minority status in both houses):

Opponents of abortion rights believe that unless there is specific wording to the contrary, abortion services will be included. "Unless you can specifically exclude abortion, it will be part of any federalized healthcare system," said Charmaine Yoest, executive director of Americans United for Life.

Efforts in other House committees to insert such prohibitions have failed. [Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.)] has vowed to push Waxman to include them in the version being written by the Energy and Commerce Committee. He was one of 19 Democrats to write to Pelosi last month to say that they "cannot support any healthcare proposal unless it excludes abortion from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan."

Abortion rights advocates say the bill simply would maintain the status quo, in which companies that offer health insurance are free to choose whether to cover abortion services. And they argue that any government restriction would mean that women who seek abortion coverage could be forced to choose a more expensive private health plan instead of a lower-cost, government-supported one. They also fear that insurers who wished to take advantage of government incentives would be forced to discontinue covering abortion procedures.

Stupak's proposal has drawn strong opposition from abortion rights advocates such as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who leads the rules committee.

"The starting point for Rep. Slaughter on the healthcare debate was protecting abortion rights," said Slaughter's spokesman, Vincent Morris.

As reporters continue to cover this battle, though, it's upending some of the stereotypes we frequently see in abortion coverage. Both the pro-life and pro-choice sides of the fight are being led by Democrats. Hopefully that means we can get some more thoughtful and less partisan coverage of the various issues in play. On that note, this Wall Street Journal piece about Blue Dog Democrats and healthcare insurance legislation never managed to discuss opposition to abortion. Kind of odd.

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