If Abortion Isn’t Health Care, What is It? 

Congressman Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) introduced his party’s third highest priority for the new congress, H.R. 3, or “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” with a puzzling statement: “Abortion is not health care.”(Congressional Record, Vol. 157, No. 8). Just what is it then? I guess he would call it a sin and try to outlaw it. Perhaps Mr. Smith, and his Democratic partner on this bill Congressman Dan Lipinski know something the rest of us do not. I doubt it. Resorting to their Catholic beliefs this time just doesn’t cut it.

Their bill would codify existing restrictions on abortion funding, namely, make the Hyde Amendment permanent. It would virtually eliminate the ways patients and employers can get tax breaks for what by any logical reckoning is a health care procedure. H.R. 3 includes a blanket provision against abortion services in any federal facility. This is an increase over the ones specified in earlier legislation.

The proposed bill goes well beyond the restrictions already in the much-debated health care act that passed in 2010. That legislation was overruled recently by a Florida judge. Appeals will take time and a Supreme Court case is in the making. President Barack Obama has made clear that he has no intention of rehashing it all. Even Catholic bishops, who learned that progressive nuns and the Catholic Health Association were not on their side against the health care act, have agreed not to go back to square one though they will undoubtedly continue to chip away at abortion.

To that end, Mr. Smith, Mr. Lipinski, and more than 150 co-sponsors are prepared to muddy the waters. The outlandish claim that abortion is not health care does not inspire confidence that this is a serious proposal. Do they really think abortion is simply a theo-political football that they can toss around while poor women are left to their own devices? I hope not.

Speaking of outlandish, the bill also includes a novel notion of rape. The wording “forcible rape” seems to imply that statutory rape, date rape, or rape while drugged would not be covered in the exceptions that have long been part of the working compromise on this matter. The term “forcible rape” is redundant on its face since all forms of rape include some kind of force whether overt or covert. Not even the Vatican resorts to such shameless and nonsensical hair splitting. It has no place in legislation and less in ethical discourse when health care for women is in the balance.

Similarly, “incest” restrictions in this bill would only apply to minors. So a girl who has just turned 19 and is raped by her uncle is out of luck when it comes to needing medical care she can’t afford. Has human decency gone on vacation in the name of God?

Both legislators are conservative Catholics who make clear that they are following their consciences, and probably cozying up to their bishops, when they prioritize abortion and persist in whittling away at women’s reproductive choices. Before he was elected to Congress thirty years ago, Mr. Smith was the executive director of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee. He has pushed alternatives to stem cell research as well as opposed abortion at every turn during his congressional career. Mr. Lipinski referred to himself recently as “a proud graduate of St. Symphorosa Grammar School” in a congressional speech celebrating Catholic Schools Week. Their institutional Catholic bona fides are not in question. Their moral judgment is.

Catholics for Choice gets it right: “As Catholics, we are called to speak out against injustice—particularly those that target the economically poor in our communities.” Among its other shortcomings, this bill does just that since its biggest impact will be on young poor women. There is nothing Catholic about that.

Let’s call things by their names. Abortion is health care when a woman is pregnant. The sin is not providing her with the resources she needs to make a responsible choice.