Health Care and the Abortion Issue

Let’s start with several obvious facts. Abortion isn’t the only issue in the health care debate — de facto, it isn’t even the central issue, whatever anyone makes of that. But to proceed as if abortion weren’t an issue at all or were something to be conceded without a fight for the sake of reform, as some people, Catholics among them, would apparently like to do, tragically misses the point. Win or lose, there’s a fight here that must be made.

But a fight about what?

In his Notre Dame commencement address in May, President Barack Obama declared support for a “sensible” conscience clause to excuse those who object to abortion from being involved in the procedure. Soon after, two friends, both prolife, were arguing about what that meant.

One said Obama had made a big concession. The other denied that proposition. He pointed to pro-abortion steps already taken by the Obama administration that violate the consciences of pro-lifers by using their taxes for that purpose, as well as the president’s declared intention to rescind Bush-era regulations affirming and clarifying conscience clause laws on the books since 1973.

Then he added:

“I’ve spent some time figuring out where Obama really stands on abortion, and now I think I know. He believes that every woman has an unconditional, intrinsic right to it. No obstruction or impediment can be allowed to get in the way of exercising that right.

“Within that framework, a ‘sensible’ conscience clause is acceptable. But a conscience clause that in any way inconvenienced a woman in having an abortion—for instance, by requiring her to go to the next hospital over instead of the hospital nearest her home—would not be allowable.”

His friend was unconvinced. “We should exploit the political potential of Obama’s pledge,” he insisted. “With so much at stake, including the integrity of the medical profession and the livelihood or conscience of Catholic physicians, his words can’t be neglected on the plausible ground that they’re meaningless. They should be wielded like a club over his head, and if he fails to honor them, the club should strike a blow to his halo.”

Both points of view will be tested in the months to come. Congress and the administration are moving full steam ahead on health care reform, with October the admittedly optimistic target date for enactment.

By contrast with the Clintons’ bumbling in their failed attempt at reform, Obama & Co. have acted with great subtlety and skill. They enjoy the advantage of widespread agreement that reform of some sort is needed (but opinions differ on what will work and what won’t). And, to top it all off, the mindless killing of late-term abortionist George Tiller by an anti-abortion zealot has given the reform campaign a martyr. Enactment of some version of “reform” may not be a certainty, but it’s a very good bet.

There’s little doubt that Obama and the congressional Democrats will seek to include abortion coverage in the plan, and given their dominance in Washington they’re likely to succeed. Very soon, we may all be debating what a “sensible” conscience clause looks like.

Meanwhile the complex perils of finessing the abortion issue are on painful display in Boston, where the archdiocese has agonized for months over an attempt to find an acceptable way for Catholic hospitals to participate in a state health care scheme that includes abortion, without complicity on the hospitals’ part. Good luck to them—but maybe they should try something easy like squaring the circle instead.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • SeanReynoldsNZ

    Just watching the New South Wales news on Channel 10. I see that PETA has complained to President Obama about him killing a fly during a news interview, suggesting that he should have used a humane fly trap instead and released the fly outside the building.

    We really need to wonder about the priorities of some people.

  • goral

    Every organization has to protect their own. How else would all the manure decompose? It’s never been any different. What is new is that now the media puts a zoom lens on all the waste matter that is out there and calls it breaking, eye witness news. Thankfully we can’t smell it.

  • Would that be “People who Enjoy Tasty Animals”?

  • DWC

    I don’t know this to be true, and I am admitedly speculating … but I have to wonder if Obama’s viewpoint of abortion is not tied to a (incorrect) view that black women could be helped if they didn’t have to raise unwanted children? I do not mean for this to appear racial … it is not, but I don’t have to stretch that far to believe their are those who see unwanted pregnancies as hindering their path out of poverty. This of course, wouldn’t be said openly.

    As for PETA. Please.

  • Bruce Roeder

    The truth is, abortion is not a health issue at all.

    Very, very few abortions are performed for the health of the mother. In countries that are allowed to keep stats (not the USA) over 90% are because contraception failed (abortion as birth control) or because the mother does not wish to have a baby at this time (convenience).

    Anyone who has been to an abortion “clinic” can tell you — you can not get any medical treatments there, not even a band-aid. Only abortions.

    To accept abortion as a health issue at all, without making the pro-abortion side explain how it is a health issue, is to fail to defend the 4,000 who died today, the 4,000 who will die tomorrow, and the 1 million who will die this year.

    “Sorry, kids, we have to try to figure out the President’s nuance, not speak the truth in season and out.”