‘Centrist’ Advocates of ‘Common Ground’ Endorse Abortion Restrictions in Health Care Bill

Senate Democrats clinched the final vote for cloture — breaking the Republican’s filibuster — of their health care bill early this morning by securing the vote of Ben Nelson (D-NE) with a restrictive abortion amendment that infuriated both pro-choice and anti-choice activists.

The amendment, now part of the bill that the Senate will vote on later this week, would require women purchasing coverage from the insurance exchange with federal subsidies to write two checks: one for their premium, and one for the portion of the premium that would cover a (hypothetical) abortion. In addition, states could opt out of allowing insurers who cover abortion to participate in exchanges in their states — placing a further impediment on accessing an abortion for some women.

But the hardcore anti-choice movement, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), opposes the amendment, asserting it would oppose the bill unless it barred insurance companies that cover abortion services from participating in the exchange at all.  

Reproductive rights advocates are condemning the provision as well, with Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien calling the scheme to have women write two premium checks “idiotic.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood of America, said the “rider” required by the amendment was motivated by politics, not policy. “There is no sound policy reason to require women to pay separately for their abortion coverage other than to try to shame them and draw attention to the abortion coverage,” she said in a statement.

Who was satisfied with the amendment, which Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) portrayed as a compromise between language that mirrored the failed Capps amendment and the successful Stupak amendment in the House version of the bill?

The so-called “center” — the very constituency which claims to seek “common ground” in the culture wars — gave its stamp of approval Friday, although it’s not clear how much sway the 40 Christian leaders and scholars had over Nelson’s agreement to the measure, as he eventually resisted pressure from the USCCB and others to hold out for the Stupak language. Perhaps Nelson liked the special goodies Harry Reid offered Nebraska with regard to Medicaid funding.

Casey is now the target of the hard-right anti-abortion movement for even proposing the compromise, with protests outside his office and television ads running against him in his home town. Nelson is in its crosshairs as well, with former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee traveling to Nebraska with the tea partiers to compare him to Judas.

Clearly looking for religious cover, Casey issued a press release Friday touting the support of leaders like Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, Evangelicals for Social Action’s Ron Sider, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s Samuel Rodriguez.

Is that what we need, though — making a religious stamp of approval essential political cover? The House Democratic leadership took heat from church-state separation and reproductive health advocates for caving at the eleventh hour to the USCCB. Requiring another religious stamp of approval for a compromise abortion amendment — even if it angered the Bishops — doesn’t fix the problem that one medical procedure is singled out as requiring a divine imprimatur. (It doesn’t appear, notably, that any member of the Senate felt the need to seek the approval of the many pro-choice religious groups who oppose restrictions.)

We know that Wallis, at least, likes to portray himself as the reasonable one, lambasting alleged left and right ideologues for attempting to hijack health care reform. Yet while he talked all summer and fall about “abortion neutrality,” he never defined what that was (and perhaps now we know what he thinks is required to achieve it).

Earlier last week, before he signed off on Casey’s amendment, Rodriguez was cavorting with the religious right, and comparing supporters of health care (without abortion restrictions) to Herod. Rodriguez told me earlier this month, “I worked with Jim Wallis and that coalition to push the House side in favor of amendment that would protect the innocent or would restrict the funding of abortion procedures.”

Some of the other Casey amendment endorsers — including Sider and Christianity Today’s editor David Neff, both recently endorsed the Manhattan Declaration, which asserts that reproductive rights are inimical to religious liberty. That “liberty” obviously requires, for them, legislation that restricts other people’s rights to supposedly preserve theirs.

At the unveiling of the Manhattan Declaration last month, Sider told me, “I think that the evangelical center agrees with what’s being said here.” And, he added, he worked with a group of religious leaders who “pushed hard privately for a truly abortion neutral kind of position in the health care bill.” Although Sider refused to be specific about whether the group lobbied for Stupak in particular, he did strongly hint that he did not consider the Capps amendment (an analog of which was in the Senate bill before the inclusion of the Casey amendment) to be “abortion neutral.”

While Sider was willing to agree to an amendment less restrictive than Stupak, his and others’ comments highlight how keen the “center” is to restrict abortion, even as it touts finding “common ground” with reproductive health advocates.