The Senate bill doesn't fund abortions. Here's why Stupak thinks it does.

How to fix health policy.
March 4 2010 5:35 PM

Why Stupak Is Wrong

The Senate bill doesn't fund abortions. Here's why he thinks it does.

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What really rankles Stupak (and the bishops) isn't that the Senate bill commits taxpayer dollars to funding abortion. Rather, it's that the Senate bill commits taxpayer dollars to people who buy private insurance policies that happen to cover abortion at nominal cost to the purchaser (even the poorest of the poor can spare $1 a month) and no cost at all to the insurer. Stupak and the bishops don't have a beef with government spending. They have a beef with market economics.

Another matter that rankles Stupak and the bishops is that the ban on federal funding for abortions in the Senate bill is tied to the fate of the Hyde Amendment. A common misconception is that the government's ban on abortion funding through the Hyde Amendment (which covers spending by the Health and Human Services Department, chiefly through Medicaid; other laws ban abortion funding through other government agencies) has the force of permanent law. It does not. It is merely a rider routinely attached to annual appropriations bills. Should the appropriations committees in Congress decide one year not to attach it, then HHS will become free to fund abortions. Pro-lifers live in fear that this will happen, but they don't want to draw too much attention to the possibility, lest they discourage the public from thinking the Hyde Amendment is writ in stone. If Congress ever did tire of the Hyde Amendment (which at this point has outlived Hyde), Stupak wouldn't want to see abortion restrictions evaporate from health reform, too. But that's exactly what would happen under the Senate bill. Its legislative language deliberately defines abortion "based on the law [governing HHS appropriations] as in effect as of the date that is six months before the beginning of the plan year involved." (This is on Page 119.) No HHS prohibition, no rules against federal subsidies for abortions through health insurance exchanges. The bishops state this bluntly: "[A] reference to this annual rider is far less secure than the House bill's permanent provision."

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Stupak is a bit more coy about this. His amendment prohibits government subsidies to anyone purchasing health insurance through the exchanges if that insurance covers abortion. To Stupak, it doesn't matter that the Senate bill already prohibits any federal dollars from paying for abortions. "Our amendment maintains current law," he has written, "which says that there should be no federal financing for abortion." This is wrong on two counts. Current law doesn't care one way or the other whether private insurers cover abortion. And to the extent it cares about government funding for abortion, it doesn't ban it forever. It bans it for this year.

In a better world, Stupak and the bishops believe, the federal ban on taxpayer-financed abortions would be permanent. It's true that the Senate-passed bill is at odds with this Platonic ideal. But the bill is completely consistent with the earthbound status quo. Why can't they accept that?

E-mail Timothy Noah at chatterbox@slate.com.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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