The story had to be written, so the New York Times turned to a veteran who has excelled as the newsroom's designated expert on doing serious, fair and accurate coverage of cultural and religious conservatives. Yes, the Times has such a person. I have heard media critics on the right praise David D. Kirkpatrick far more often than I have heard them attack him. Thus, this was the man who needed to write the story that ran under this headline: "Abortion Fight Complicates Debate on Health Care." Here's the top of the story:
WASHINGTON -- As if it were not complicated enough, the debate over health care in Congress is becoming a battlefield in the fight over abortion.
Abortion opponents in both the House and the Senate are seeking to block the millions of middle- and lower-income people who might receive federal insurance subsidies to help them buy health coverage from using the money on plans that cover abortion. And the abortion opponents are getting enough support from moderate Democrats that both sides say the outcome is too close to call. Opponents of abortion cite as precedent a 30-year-old ban on the use of taxpayer money to pay for elective abortions.
My only negative comment about the opening of the story is that it makes it sound like this is something new. I reality, of course, this battle inside the Democratic tent has been going on for weeks or months. Click here and then here to catch up on that, a bit.
The story, you may note, also hints at the line that pro-life Democrats have been trying to draw in the sand, by calling for a simple, public up-or-down vote on the Hyde Amendment.
What will really raise eyebrows, however, is Kirkpatrick's summary paragraph:
The question looms as a test of President Obama's campaign pledge to support abortion rights but seek middle ground with those who do not. Mr. Obama has promised for months that the health care overhaul would not provide federal money to pay for elective abortions, but White House officials have declined to spell out what he means.
There you have the key to the whole thing. The president is insisting that he will keep the promise, but there is no singular statement of what the compromise bill will look like. And don't think that his pro-life critics -- left, middle and right -- haven't noticed that. This is also, I would assume, why journalists have hesitated to write about this issue. How do you nail down facts, or even opinions, when you don't really know what is at stake?
The strength of this story comes near the end, with it's focus on debates inside the Democratic Party and, finally, a clear statement in the Times about the importance of the U.S. Catholic bishops on this issue. Again, why do they matter so much? Duh. The bishops have a proven record of actually wanting health-care reform to pass.
As always in Beltway battles, people on the inside are already trying to do the math.
Lawmakers pushing the abortion restrictions say they feel the momentum is on their side, especially because the restlessness of other Democratic moderates is making every vote count. At least 31 House Democrats have signed various recent letters to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, urging her to allow a vote on a measure to restrict use of the subsidies to pay for abortion, including 25 who joined more than 100 Republicans on a letter delivered Monday.
Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, a leading Democratic abortion opponent, said he had commitments from 40 Democrats to block the health care bill unless they have a chance to include the restrictions.
After months of pushing the issue, Mr. Stupak said in an interview, Mr. Obama finally called him 10 days ago. "He said: 'Look, try to get this thing worked out among the Democrats. We want you to work it out within the party,' " Mr. Stupak said, adding that Mr. Obama did not say whether he supported the segregated-money provision or a more sweeping restriction. "We got his attention, which we never had before."
The story meticulously quotes calm voices on both sides, as it should, and ends with the bishops. Once again, the key debates are taking place among people who WANT health-care reform, but have questions about issues -- abortion, rationing, etc. -- that historically have been debated in terms that are both political and religious.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has lobbied for decades to persuade the government to provide universal health insurance, says it opposes the bill unless it bans the use of subsidies for plans that cover abortion.
"We have said to the White House and various Senate offices that we could be the best friends to this bill if our concerns are met," Richard M. Doerflinger, a spokesman for the bishops on abortion issues, said in an interview. "But the concerns are kind of intractable."
Why? Because many of the concerns are ancient and doctrinal. In other words, this battle is pulling everyone -- both opponents of abortion and defenders of abortion rights -- into church-state territory.
Stay tuned. Obviously.