The Magazine

Absolutism in Disguise

Yes, Obamacare does mean federally funded abortion.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By IVAN KENNEALLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama adopted the two-step strategy on abortion that has become standard among liberal politicians: oppose abortion as a matter of personal conviction but deny that that conviction is relevant to public policy. This rhetorical sleight of hand is meant to accomplish two things: First, it creates the impression of an ideological neutrality regarding public administration that is the characteristic pretense of technocratic politics--rather than the evangelical proselytizing of his predecessor, Obama promises scientific objectivity and nonjudgmental open-mindedness. Second, Obama styles himself a small government federalist who insists on the limitations of any administration to effectively play the role of moral umpire--this is what he meant when he claims the issue of abortion is above his "pay grade."

If one were to take seriously the central premise of Obama's ersatz science of politics--the distinction between political facts and moral values--the inescapable conclusion is that our president turns out to be a staunch libertarian proponent of minimal government. Abortion, however, reveals, maybe better than any other issue, the brazen disingenuousness of such small-government posturing, and the convenient faux libertarianism often espoused by leftist proponents of greater centralized bureaucracy. It also illuminates the moral dogmatism that often lurks behind any technocratic claim to be guided by an administrative science unencumbered by moral attachments.

Obama has repeatedly said that any health care reform bill he signs would maintain the "status quo" on abortion, which essentially means upholding the Hyde amendment's prohibition of any federal funding for elective abortions. That 1976 amendment is a genuine model of legislative compromise--while it prevents the flow of federal dollars into any plan that covers abortion, including Medicaid, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and S-chip, it does not interfere with a private insurance plan that covers abortion with its own money (and most do) or even with states that do the same (17 opt to subsidize it).

In short, the Hyde amendment permits those who wish to have an abortion to pay for it themselves or to find an insurance company that will, while ensuring that the federal government doesn't compel those who find abortion morally repugnant to pony up as well. It resigns itself to an irresolvable contest of interests over a moral controversy instead of attempting a merely cosmetic harmony through shallow demagoguery. The position staked out in the Hyde amendment is meant to be a respectful and equitable arrangement between opposed constituencies, and it recognizes the limitations placed upon the federal government as an arbiter of a moral dispute between such profoundly divergent convictions.

The Capps amendment, proposed by California representative Lois Capps but largely written by pro-choice champion Representative Henry Waxman, amounts to a wholesale revision of the current law. Instead of maintaining a strict distinction between private choice and government-mandated public support, the Capps amendment effectively makes the coverage of abortion a part of a new "public option" regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services. In this scheme, there's simply no way around the fact that funds used to pay for the abortions of those covered by the public option will be drawn from the federal treasury. Likewise, funds used to reimburse private insurers subsidized by the government will as well. The grand scale socialization of health care makes any real compartmentalization of the public and the private impossible; in fact, the entire point of Obamacare is that private industry and choice become absorbed by public superintendence and bureaucratic mandate.

The technocratic claim to scientific neutrality regarding values, if it were sincere, would actually require a private health care industry inoculated from governmental intrusion. The current compromise allows individuals and states to formulate their own views and policies on abortion while permitting the federal government the detachment necessary to avoid endorsing one position over another. Without a demarcation between private and public funds, the government will inevitably have to choose a position that undermines the Hyde compromise--it will have to refuse the allocation of tax dollars to abortion, effectively prohibiting it if private insurance is ultimately eliminated, or force those who morally oppose abortion to subsidize it. Of course, there is no way Obama's administration will refuse federal money to those who want abortions. Given the collapse of the private into the public Obamacare pines for, the public option makes a mockery of individual conscience when it comes to abortion--whether you like it or not, you're going to support it.