The Magazine

Absolutism in Disguise

Yes, Obamacare does mean federally funded abortion.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By IVAN KENNEALLY
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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.

And the public certainly doesn't like it--according to a Rasmussen poll released in September a paltry 13 percent of Americans are in favor of using federal dollars to fund abortion. This might explain Obama's often impatient protestations on the subject; during his September 9 speech to a joint session of Congress he unambiguously declared, "Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions." Back in 2007 he also promised Planned Parenthood that his plan would "provide all essential services, including reproductive services." Indeed, he went even further, declaring that such services would be "at the center, and at the heart of the plan that I propose." While Obama has taken the familiar liberal position that he wants to help make abortions "safe and rare," he has voted against any legislation that would limit recourse to the procedure, refusing to support bans on partial birth abortion or even an Illinois law that would have provided protection for infants that survived botched abortions. Despite insistent claims to the contrary, his own political efforts have only made abortions more frequent and unsafe, at least for the unborn.

Obama's small government libertarianism is insincere but instructive--the left has often embraced a robust sense of privacy, going so far as to invent constitutional protections for it, to advance their liberationist sexual agenda. In fact, the pro-choice argument for abortion, as well as for the radical deconstruction of traditional marriage, has always been based upon the moral primacy of individual choice free from the despotic intrusions of government. For example, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood have both been aggressively arguing that a public option limited by the Hyde amendment would lead to decreased access to abortion, since the only plans that could insure it, private plans, will eventually be crowded out by government-provided alternatives. Keep in mind that these groups are working on the assumption, despite Obama's claims to the contrary, that the public option will inevitably lead to the demise of private insurance.

Still, the left's argument from privacy and sovereign individual choice is an incoherent one since they want that choice to come with the full support of the federal government and public tax dollars. Rather than the liberty to make moral judgments and choices shielded from regulation, the leftist brand of libertarianism wants its ideological attachments to be funded by those who don't share them. Behind the thin veneer of advocacy for individual rights is, therefore, a crude collectivism that prioritizes one set of moral commitments over another. The distinction between issues of private conscience and the demands of public policy that is Obama's default position is really an illusion designed to import a clandestine ideology through the backdoor.

Health care has become a signature issue for Democrats in part because the umbrella of health encompasses the contentious areas of sexual morality and the family--those who get to decide who gets treated for what become the moral superintendents of which private behaviors get praised or blamed. So one typical feature of the left's technocratic view of governance--the reduction of moral and political problems to ones of specialized bureaucratic expertise--finds a congenial home in a health care system that recasts private issues of morality as clinical issues for governmental determination.

For those who take moral issue with abortion, the stakes are extraordinarily high. Prior to the Hyde amendment the federal government funded some 300,000 abortions each year. The amendment has always required annual reauthorization, and that can hardly be taken for granted with a radically pro-choice president, a radically pro-choice secretary of health and human services, and a Democratic Congress. However divisive the cleavage between our pro-choice and pro-life factions, it provides compelling if tempestuous evidence that we are still free as citizens to draw our own moral conclusions and engage in debate about those issues that matter most. The public option, by contrast, is intended to eliminate not only private insurance but, more ominously, the meaningfulness of private moral choice when it comes to abortion.

Ivan Kenneally is an assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.