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Jim Wallis, Obamacare and AbortionConnor Ewing August 28, 2009
It seems that President Obama’s recent entreaties to the religious community haven’t gone unnoticed. In the days since he held two conference calls with religious leaders, members of his party as well as the press have noticed his attempts to cast health care reform as a moral issue. This emerging religious dimension was the subject of a CNN interview earlier this week, in which liberal Sojourners President Jim Wallis and conservative Family Research Council President Tony Perkins discussed the moral nature of the health care debate and President Obama’s attempts to court people of faith. In the interview, Wallis made several comments that put in doubt his support for the pending reforms. Responding to the suggestion that health care reform would fund abortions, Wallis said, “There is a consensus in the faith community that federal funds should be prohibited from paying for abortions in a health care bill.” He went on to identify a shortcoming of existing proposals, saying, “That’s where we have to go. Are all the bills clear on that now? Not yet. They’re making progress on the Hill. We’re not there yet.” Wallis’ own position on abortion is sometimes nebulous. He argues that larger government programs will reduce abortions while also opposing most legal restrictions on abortions. At the same time, he wants to appeal to more robustly pro-life evangelicals with his advocacy of a wider welfare state. The statements on CNN imply that Wallis, who is a strong supporter of President Obama, is not yet ready to support fully any of the bills in present form so long as they facilitate potential federal funding of abortion. They also seem to indicate that there is work to be done before he will join the effort to pass a bill into law. This position, however, could be seen as inconsistent with other statements and actions in which Wallis has been enthusiastic for Obamacare. Last week’s conference call with President Obama, which Wallis co-sponsored, featured a segment on how people of faith can get involved. These suggestions ranged from signing a pledge committing to take “actions…to make the faith community a positive force for health care reform” to calling political representatives to urge them to support health care reform. What was not included in the call was a discussion of what has to be done before people of faith can in good conscience support a bill. In fact, the Administration went to great lengths to assure those listening to the call that federal funds would not be used for abortions. When asked about the President’s position on abortion, White House Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes stated current policy and reiterated the President’s previous promises: “The President has said that it’s long standing policy that federal funds won’t be used for abortion coverage. Health reform and our health reform efforts are not intended to force Americans to purchase coverage that includes abortion coverage they don’t want.” During his statement at the end of the call, President Obama labeled as a “fabrication” the claim that health care reform means government funding of abortions. The call gave the impression that all that was left to do was to pass and sign a bill. Indeed, as much was said when listeners were told, “The moral vision is there. The policy expertise is there. It is the political will that needs our support.” The growing concern among many Americans, especially people of faith hoping to support health care reform, centers around two questions. First, how do the pending proposals deal with abortion? And, second, what is the President’s position on abortion as it relates to health care reform? To the first question, we are not yet sure. This is partly the case because there is no single bill which can be referred to for an answer. Further, details of the proposed coverage are sparse and open to conflicting interpretations. Regarding the second question, concerning the President’s position on how abortion is to be dealt with in health care reform, there have been mixed messages. While Wallis was quick to point out in the CNN interview that, “The President has said that he doesn’t want federal funds to pay for abortions,” candidate Obama gave a different response at a Planned Parenthood event in 2007. Asked how his health care reform would treat “reproductive care,” then-Senator Obama said, “In my mind, reproductive care is essential care; it is basic care. So it is at the center and at the heart of the plan that I propose…[W]e also will subsidize those who prefer to stay in the private insurance market, except the insurers are going to have to abide by the same rules in terms of providing comprehensive care, including reproductive care.” Such audience-contingent promises clarify why, despite the President’s insistence that federal funds will not be used for abortions, no one is quite sure what effect health care reform would have on the funding and provision of abortion. By his own admission, Wallis believes that “we’re not there yet” when it comes to how pending reforms treat abortion. Consequently, one should expect to hear from Wallis when, if ever, we arrive. In the meantime, we will be watching to see how he contributes to the effort.
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