- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In September, 27 Democratic senators and one independent wrote to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, to “strongly object” to a proposed regulation aimed at protecting the conscience rights of healthcare providers and institutions.

Why on earth, some might wonder, would anyone object to protecting conscience rights in healthcare? The answer, of course, is that opponents view the proposed regulation as a serious threat to the entrenchment of abortion and related practices, as accepted law and mainstream medical practice.

As a practical matter, the HHS effort would seem to have a rather narrow and non-controversial objective. It is an attempt to put into concrete terms the application of three separate laws, passed by Congress, which give doctors and hospitals and others in the health sector to deliver care without participating in, or even facilitating, services they find objectionable, especially those related to the termination of an unborn life.

But giving people and institutions legal protection from the abortion-on-demand culture is viewed as a serious threat by abortion’s advocates because they fear marginalization. That’s why they have engaged in such pitched battles to impose abortion as an accepted service on mainstream medicine. In recent years, they have waged fights over whether or not medical schools must teach abortion procedures to secure accreditation; Catholic hospitals can purchase secular institutions and discontinue practices inconsistent with a traditional Christian understanding of appropriate health care; and states should be allowed to require private insurance to cover abortion and other services which many residents would rather not pay for.

No matter how this latest skirmish over the “life issue” comes out, it should serve as a wake-up call to voters who are casting their ballots.

Recent polls indicate that just about every issue now pales in comparison to voter concerns over the economy. That’s certainly understandable. Most of us were caught off guard by the suddenness and severity of the crisis that engulfed the financial sector over the last month.

But, hard as it may seem today to believe, this economic crisis too will pass with time. We are likely to experience a pronounced recession, but there should be no doubt that growth will return once the housing market stabilizes. Market economies are resilient because businesses and households have every incentive, and the freedom, to adjust quickly to new realities.

It is far less certain that the country is on an inevitable path to a culture of life. The tide of public opinion has been trending in the right direction in recent years as new technology has given the public a visual image of the unborn that has made it impossible to sweep aside arguments that they are deserving of rights.

But if, as current polls indicate, the election delivers control of both Congress and the presidency to the party firmly committed to abortion-on-demand, it will set the pro-life cause back for many years, no matter the direction of public opinion.

For starters, there will be a wholesale change in the outlook of those holding positions of power in HHS and other key agencies in the executive branch. This latest regulation will almost surely be repealed if it is finalized before January. But that would only be the beginning. A top-to-bottom review would certainly ensue to revisit any and all decisions which have incrementally pushed government policy in a more pro-life direction. More federal funding would surely flow toward institutions associated with abortion provisions. Regulations which define “children” as including the unborn would be scrutinized. States would be given wide latitude to expand “family planning” services with public funds. And, of course, existing legal and regulatory barriers to federal funding of abortions will come under renewed attack.

The two major political parties do differ on many issues. But it is worth noting that most of them are amendable to political give and take. Think of offshore drilling for oil, or a new regime for financial regulation, or even budgetary policy.

The same cannot be said of respect for life. There is no getting around the fact that one party is firmly committed to cementing abortion as an accepted and irreversible part of life in the United States, and the other seeks to restore greater respect for unborn life in law and practice. There is no more fundamental or important question on the ballot this November than that.

Incidentally, two of those 28 signatories on the letter to HHS were Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

James C. Capretta is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.