Washington Matters


Let's Keep The Abortion Fight
Out of the Health Care Debate

Mark Willen

The fact is the U.S. government always has and always will subsidize abortions.



It’s become pretty routine for members of Congress to hold up legislation of all sorts in order to press unrelated political and social agendas. It’s one of the factors that make it so hard for lawmakers to stick to the merits of any particular issue and find constructive compromises. And it certainly contributes to the complete lack of respect that Americans have for Congress.

The latest example is the big fight over abortion on the health care bill. Abortion is a huge issue in its own right, and one on which every American has a strong opinion. Most of those opinions are in between the polar opposites of never and sure, but Congress has a lot of trouble parsing grays and usually prefers a black-and-white approach. So it is with amendments to the health care bill.

The current fight, which threatens passage of the bill, is allegedly over the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortion. I say “allegedly” because that’s not the real fight – it’s only the excuse to turn an important debate over health care into a polemic to excite one political base or another. Abortion opponents are demanding language preventing anyone who gets a government subsidy to buy health insurance that covers abortion. In other words, if you’re poor, forget it. Those with jobs who get coverage through their employers face no such restrictions because most private plans do cover abortions.

Let’s leave the argument about abortion per se for another day and consider the real issue. And as you read this column, please don’t assume you can guess my own views. I’m not arguing for or against abortion rights – only for separating the issue from the health care debate. I think most everyone can understand why abortion opponents may be morally outraged at the thought of their tax dollars financing abortions, just as conscientious objectors might be outraged to see their taxes go to supporting war.

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Here’s a fact that’s hard to dispute: The government has always subsidized abortions. Always has, always will.

I know, I know. The famous Hyde amendment supposedly bars that, and we have this fight every year when the appropriations bills come due. The amendment results in real restrictions for some -- mainly the poor and government workers. Federal employees and many on Medicaid are barred from insurance covering abortions, although many states provide it with their own funds. Theoretically, government workers can buy supplementary coverage with their own dollars to cover abortions. The only problem is it’s extremely hard to find. And because no one expects to need an abortion, few are likely to even consider the option.

But the U.S. government still subsidizes abortions for lots of other people through tax deductions. Everyone who get insurance through their employers pays their health premiums in pre-tax dollars. In other words, a portion of their premiums are subsidized in the form of a lower tax bill. The self-employed get to deduct their premiums as well. How is that not using taxpayer money to subsidize their insurance? And the cost of an abortion is a deductible medical expense that can reduce an individual's taxes. Isn’t that using taxpayer funds?

When you think of it this way, the demands of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and others who may think they need to burnish their anti-abortion credentials are ridiculous. If they genuinely want to outlaw abortions, they need to persuade the Supreme Court to do it. And if they insist on using the tax code and federal subsidies to get around the court, then the only fair thing is to do it across the board and end tax deductions for all health premiums. That won’t happen, of course, because the rich and powerful, who will always have access to abortions, won’t let it happen.

But that’s no excuse for this hypocrisy. So let’s be honest with ourselves and drop it from the health care debate.




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