On July 21, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi pushing for a "common ground" solution to disagreements about abortion coverage in the health care bill. Ryan, who describes himself as pro-life and wrote that the bill should prohibit federal funding of abortion, believes that the Capps amendment passed by the Energy and Commerce committee last Thursday is precisely the kind of measure he wanted. In a phone interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD on Friday, Ryan said the Capps amendment makes it "very clear that no public money can be used to provide and pay for an abortion."
But pro-life leaders and members of Congress say that Ryan's statement is misleading: They point out that the Capps amendment, in fact, allows the "public option" and federally-subsidized private plans to cover elective abortions. Taxpayer funds will pay for insurance policies that might make abortions cost $50 out-of-pocket instead of $500. But Ryan says "there will be a firewall between the public money and the private money," and--on paper, at least--private funds will be used to pay abortion clinics. Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) believes the Capps amendment is a "phony compromise," according to his spokesman. "It's one of the most deceptive amendments I have ever seen," Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told me during a phone interview. "The bottom line is that money is fungible, and the plan itself will be subsidizing abortion-on-demand, with taxpayer funding commingled, and the numbers of abortions will go up significantly."
Studies by University of Alabama professor Michael New and the Guttmacher Institute have shown that public funding of abortion through Medicaid dramatically increases the abortion rate.
Ryan's support for the Capps amendment is the latest instance in which he has served as a pro-life "front-man" for groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, says the National Right to Life Committee's Douglas Johnson. He says that Ryan is a "wolf dressed in increasingly-tattered pro-life clothing," and points to Ryan's 2004 vote to repeal the ban on abortions at military bases overseas, his recent vote to allow public funding of abortion in D.C, and his votes in favor of embryo-destructive stem-cell research. According to the NRLC, Ryan hasn't cast a pro-life vote since 2006. "[Ryan] has no right whatsoever to advertise himself as right-to-life," says Rep. Smith.
Ryan defends himself from these charges, saying that in 2004, "I accidentally voted the wrong way" on allowing abortions at military bases, and he points out that he cast pro-life votes on the issue in 2003, 2005, and 2006. While a few anti-abortion legislators support embryonic stem-cell research, Ryan's support for public funding of abortion in D.C. pits him against all pro-life Representatives (and even a number of pro-choice Representatives who oppose funding of abortion). "Congress shouldn't tell the District of Columbia that it can't use its own money to fund abortions," Ryan told a local Ohio paper recently. "That's not the federal government's concern." Though D.C. generates some funds through local taxation, Congress appropriates all funds in the District.
In the wake of the D.C. vote, Democrats for Life executive director Kristen Day publicly announced that Ryan had been quietly removed from the group's national advisory board months earlier due to concerns about his voting record. "It's no secret that Congressman Ryan is very politically ambitious and has his eyes set on a statewide office in the near future," Day wrote on July 16. "So maybe he's proactively abandoning his pro-life roots in hopes of sliding his hands into the deep pockets of the national pro-choice donor base."
Ryan says that Day kicked him out of the group because he supports federal funding for contraception. "I pressed them to support contraception to reduce abortions, and they don't like contraception," Ryan said. "They don't think contraception helps reduce abortions, and I do. They just adamantly were opposed to it."
"No, that's not true at all," says Kristen Day. "He knows very well that we're not opposed to contraception." Day says she explicitly informed Ryan that Democrats for Life (like the National Right to Life Committee) has no formal position on contraceptive funding. Sen. Bob Casey, one of the most prominent pro-life Democrats in Washington, has voted in favor of Title X contraception funding--some of which subsidizes Planned Parenthood--and remains in good standing with the group.
More public funding of contraception is at the center of Ryan's "common ground" abortion bill, "Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act," but Chris Smith argues that this bill is simply a slush fund for abortion providers, who will use the money to build more clinics. While low-income women already have access to federally-funded contraception, it's certainly possible to increase funding for contraception without paying for health insurance policies that cover abortions. It's also possible to fund contraception without giving that money to groups that perform abortions, but Ryan fought efforts to strip contraception funding from Planned Parenthood--actions for which the largest abortion-provider in America formally honored him.
Ryan says that the NRLC's Douglas Johnson also opposes him because of his support for contraception. According to Ryan, Johnson is "all of a sudden trying to undermine my pro-life record. And he can't get past the fact that I'm pro-life and will continue to be pro-life and say I'm pro-life, vote pro-life." On some matters, Ryan does remain pro-life. For example, he supports maintaining the ban on abortion coverage in insurance policies for federal employees--even though a system that purports to segregate federal funds from private funds, similar to the one he supports in the congressional health care bill, could be employed. "That's a choice we make as federal officials, as we would be technically the employer of the federal employees, millions and millions of people, and that's our choice," Ryan explained to me. "I don't think our federal plan should have abortions in it."
But Ryan's rhetoric on abortion seems almost indistinguishable from your typical pro-choice Democrat at times. "We can still fight about legal and illegal and who wants to put doctors and women in prison and who doesn't," Ryan said, adding that it's more important to focus on trying to reduce the number of abortions.
And then he seemed to borrow a page directly from Barack Obama:
TWS: When do you believe life begins?
REP. RYAN: That answer's above my pay grade. That's for God to determine.
TWS: So you're not saying first trimester, second trimester, conception?
REP. RYAN: I don't know. I mean, that's God. God knows when it begins, and when it ends, and all that other stuff.
"Above my pay grade," is the exact response that Obama gave at the presidential forum at Saddleback Church during the campaign.
It's not surprising then that Kristen Day seeks a more consistent pro-life leader to carry on their cause in the Democratic caucus. "As far as the health care bill is concerned, I think we have to make it very clear that Congressman Bart Stupak is speaking for pro-life Democrats," says Day. "We're hoping at the end of the day Congressman Ryan will find his way back. He was elected by his constituents to be pro-life."
John McCormack is a deputy online editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.