Got news? Abortion is in the details

During the firestorm right after Rep. Bart Stupak approved the Senate's take on health care reform, I posted an item here at GetReligion that asked some basic questions about a key religion element of the story. The consistently pro-life Democrat said that the Senate bill (backed by an executive order from President Barack Obama) would not allow tax dollars to fund elective abortions, even though it did not contain the language that he had successfully added to the earlier House bill -- language that was defeated in the Senate, to the joy of the defenders of abortion rights.

Thus, I asked:

... Was Stupak naive? ... What, pray tell, is the difference between Stupak's view of the Senate bill and that of the U.S. Catholic bishops? What are the facts in the legislation on which they disagree? ... It's clear that abortion-rights activists believe they have something to cheer about, because Stupak's language was defeated.

Ever since then, I have been looking for mainstream coverage that returns to this issue and clearly explains the views on both sides. Note that I said explains the views. It is not enough for a story to simply say "this side is right," without addressing the concerns of mainstream voices on the opposing side (think Catholic bishops or liberal mainline Protestant leaders).

I'm still looking. In the meantime, please consider the following material from a Washington Post op-ed page column by Kathleen Parker, the conservative that many conservatives have recently learned to semi-hate.

I realize that we do not cover editorial columns as news here at GetReligion, so this tests our normal limits. Still, Parker offers some explanatory language that seems especially sober and clear (at least to me). I am sure that many will disagree. However, if you choose to leave comments knocking her explanations, please offer some URLs to link to factual material -- mainstream sources, please -- to back your case. This is one of the only pieces I have seen that even addresses the issues raised by the U.S. Catholic bishops and others in mainstream groups that oppose the federal funding of abortion.

Read it all. Meanwhile, here is a key chunk of her column, which follows an explanation of why an executive order cannot override a statute:

... Of course the bill doesn't explicitly state that it appropriates abortion funding. In fact, it takes pains to use terminology that seems to explicitly forbid it. But other areas are swampier. And, indeed, funds could be used to pay for abortion under circumstances that predictably will evolve.

History and precedent tell us this much. For one thing, the Hyde Amendment is a rider that must be lobbied and attached each year to the annual Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill. Under its terms, the amendment applies only to those funds.

Rather than following the usual course of funding community health centers (CHCs) through the Labor/HHS budget, the health-care-reform measure does an end run around Hyde by directly appropriating billions of dollars into a new CHC fund. Because the Obama administration's "fix-it" bill did not include the abortion-ban language proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), those billions appropriated to CHCs simply are not covered by Hyde.

The president's executive order, she notes, was supposed to handle this problem by extending the Hyde language to cover community health centers. However, it presidents could do that, then there wouldn't have been annual wars fought on the Hill during the George W. Bush years to pass the Hyde Amendment. When you are talking about controlling money, you need an act of Congress. As one expert says, "That's Civics 101."

Parker continues:

It is telling that the nation's largest abortion provider -- Planned Parenthood -- is claiming "victory" because "we were able to keep the Stupak abortion ban out of the final legislation and President Obama did not include the Stupak language in his executive order."

Several supporters of the bill have argued that this debate is otherwise irrelevant because abortions aren't performed at CHCs. While currently true, this doesn't mean that CHCs wouldn't like to offer abortion among their reproductive services. Under the new law, they can. There's nothing to stop them.

Here's why. By statute, CHCs are required to provide all "required primary health care services," defined to include "health services related to ... obstetrics or gynecology that are furnished by physicians." Federal courts long have held that when a statute requires provision of health services under such broad categories, then the statute must be construed to include abortion unless it explicitly excludes it. Voila.

Journalists note: This points toward the next step in the evolution of this story. The local hook may be as close as the sidewalks in front of your local community health center or the telephones at your local chapter of the Right To Life Committee (or the local Catholic diocese, or a megachurch that gets online bulletins from Focus on the Family, etc., etc.)

There is no reason for the story to go away, especially since a majority of Americans continue to oppose the use of tax dollars to fund abortions and, rest assured, GOP leaders (whether they have constructive views on health care or not) will be preparing to shout those statistics from coast to coast in the next round of congressional elections.

Stay tuned.

Photo: President Barack Obama signs a stimulus bill sending new funds to community health centers across the nation.

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