Soothing Words Aren’t Enough

It’s hardly news that politicians sometimes say things to particular audiences simply in hopes of pleasing them, without necessarily meaning to follow through on what they seem to have promised. Perhaps that explains President Barack Obama’s odd performance on funding for elective abortions in health care reform. Perhaps. But I suspect something more basic is at work.

The fundamental concern driving prolife Americans in the abortion debate — to protect unborn human life — appears simply not to matter much to our pro-choice president. This is not to say he’s an evil man. But on the record it is fair to suppose that in his moral universe the unborn possess negligible moral weight, while the right to choose abortion and act on that choice is a matter of very high priority.

If that is correct, then soothing words directed now and then by Obama to an audience like the one at the Notre Dame commencement last spring are best understood as verbal counters in a political game aimed at advancing the right to choose while simultaneously jollying the gullible.

Passing over Obama’s well documented promises to pro-abortion audiences, the statements he’s presumably intended for prolife ears during the last eight months reflect something like that. And so we get the following.

At Notre Dame on May 17 the president said in part, “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause.”

The health care debate moved into high gear soon after. On August 19, speaking via a teleconference organized by religious groups, Obama protested health care “fabrications” including claims that legislation then moving forward provided public funding of abortion. On August 23, in his weekly radio address, he followed that up by saying, “When it comes to the current ban on using tax dollars for abortions, nothing will change under reform.”

Next day a nonpartisan web site called FactCheck concluded that “despite what Obama said” the House bill really would use public funds to pay for abortion.

Even so, addressing Congress September 9, Obama pointed to a “misunderstanding” in need of correcting. “Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions and federal conscience laws will remain in place,” he explained.

On November 7, however, the House found it necessary to amend its bill by adopting the Stupak-Pitts amendment — essentially, the Hyde Amendment which since 1976 has barred federal funding of elective abortions, allowing it only in cases of rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life.

The president then repeated his endorsement of the “status quo” on funding. But although Stupak-Pitts — a.k.a. Hyde — is the status quo on this matter, Stupak-Pitts wouldn’t do, he said.

Shortly before Christmas the Senate rejected the amendment that the House earlier had passed. A few days later it approved a health care bill containing a so-called compromise on abortion funding that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other prolife groups said would allow public funding of elective abortions and force people with conscientious objections to help pay for them. Obama prefers the Senate version to the House version.

Obama’s public utterances don’t add up. He says that he supports the status quo on abortion funding, but when push comes to shove he supports loosening up. This makes sense if you suppose he’s prepared to give prolifers rhetoric but not substance. The health care fight will come to a head in the next few weeks, and the president could still change his tune. Unfortunately, by now that seems highly unlikely.

Russell Shaw


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

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  • Joe DeVet

    Obama is not an evil man? OK, I’ll grant the author that. Let’s just call him a “bent man” (cf C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy).

    I can’t recall a single thing Obama has said about the health care proposal which is true. The truth is not in this bent man.

  • The President’s solution to people who disagree with him seems to be manipulation with soothing words and rhetorical liniment. Now the Latin root of the word “liniment” is “linere” which means “to smear” (as in a soothing oil). I suggest that pro-life Americans and anybody else who disagrees with Obama’s statist agenda are being “smeared” with words that sound good but mean nothing. He makes meaningless but lofty-sounding speeches; that’s all he’s ever done in his entire political career, and it’s all we can expect from him in the future.

  • LarryW2LJ

    This article is exactly what pro-life Catholics were saying to Catholics who were planning to vote for Obama prior to the election. That it was all smoke and mirrors and language of appeasement, and that no concrete actions would follow.

    You got what you voted for.