September 24, 2010 | Commentary on Family and Marriage
House Republicans' new "Pledge to America" has met with mixed reaction.
However, most Americans - even those in Congress - should be able to agree on at least one item in the 21-page agenda: the proposal to address federal subsidies for elective abortion once and for all.
Poll after poll shows 70 percent or more of voters oppose taxpayer funding of abortion. A dispute in Congress over it dominated the closing stages of debate on Obamacare. Democrats might well have passed their legislative overhaul of health care months sooner had it not been for their party's internal battles over abortion.
For nearly six months, Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and Rep. Joe Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican, tied up the massive measure by insisting on language incorporating the Hyde Amendment. That traditional amendment blocks federal reimbursement for elective abortions as well as federal contributions to any "trust fund" that pays indirectly for such abortions.
Although Republicans generally were glad for any issue impeding Obamacare, some in the GOP coalition regarded the Stupak-Pitts compact as a marriage of convenience that Democrats would end at crunch time - final passage of the bill. The divorce occurred March 21, when Stupak announced he had made a deal with President Barack Obama and was dropping support for his own amendment.
The outcome was messy, to say the least. Obama issued an executive order purporting to fill the holes left by abandonment of Stupak's amendment.
Weeks later, though, a few states issued guidelines for temporary, high-risk insurance pools that would have allowed coverage of elective abortions. The administration scrambled to stretch the president's executive order to deny such abortion coverage, then announced the stretch shouldn't be considered a "precedent" for other programs.
No one was happy. Social conservatives saw their signature Hyde Amendment slipping away piece by piece. Economic conservatives who didn't trust social conservatives on the Democratic side saw the abortion-funding issue continue to "cut both ways" and muddy the waters on bill after bill. Social and economic liberals saw the Obama administration reneging on Democrats' longstanding platform commitment to providing for abortion regardless of "ability to pay." Into this maelstrom swims House Republicans' Pledge to America, with its promise to pass a permanent Hyde Amendment to ensure taxpayers don't pay for elective abortions. The Pledge also commits its signers to adopting full "conscience protections" for medical personnel and insurers who don't wish to offer or refer clients for abortions - another issue on which Obamacare made federal policy more disjointed.
True, the GOP proposal won't please NARAL Pro-Choice America, or the managers at Planned Parenthood who have corralled a third of the abortion industry. But for nearly everyone else in the policy arena, the plank on the Hyde Amendment is an idea whose time has long since come.
Public opinion on the matter has been stable for decades. That's the major reason why Congress and two-thirds of the states have refused to fund elective abortions for many years. But achieving this result in Washington requires annual passage of spending bills that contain abortion-funding limits as "riders" - law in the year they're enacted, but subject to constant renewal.
Right now, abortion funding also must be addressed in each new law, Obamacare for instance, that creates another program or funding stream that might encompass elective abortion. Given the endless bureaucracy-building capacity of the government, to-subsidize-or-not-to-subsidize is a perennial topic. The question can dominate legislation whose prime focus lies elsewhere. Case in point: the most recent defense authorization bill.
Last time the Republicans had a majority in Congress, they failed to fix this problem. This November, voters may give them a chance to correct their mistake. The Pledge to America contains a promise to do so. For all but the flintiest of the feminist interest groups, this promise is welcome news. Its fulfillment would be a good thing for both parties, and for the nation.
Charles A. (Chuck) Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Sacramento Bee