Friday, July 17, 2009

Just before Independence Day, President Obama, Rome-bound, told reporters he favors a “robust” policy protecting health care workers whose consciences forbid them to perform abortions and other morally objectionable practices. His words, however, diverge from his deeds.

While almost everyone agrees abortion is terrible, somehow, when inconvenient unborn human life intrudes, it too often becomes the default “choice.”

Promises of “robust” conscience protections notwithstanding, the president’s $635 billion off-budget reserve fund for remaking American health care includes eight principles that deny both consumers’ freedom to choose their health care provider and health care providers’ freedom to choose not to kill unborn babies through abortion.

In February, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, tried to remedy this situation by attaching a conscience clause to the budget. This ninth principle — although nonbinding — was defeated 56 to 41 along mostly party lines. Three Republican senators — Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (now a Democrat), Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine voted against; three Democrat senators — Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania voted for the provision.

On Monday, Mr. Coburn reintroduced his amendment in the key Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pension, where it was again promptly voted down along party lines — though Mr. Casey broke ranks — clearing the way for passage of the committee’s health reform bill two days later.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, acting chairman while Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, continues to convalesce, claimed current law protects consciences. However, according to a Senate source, this is a “manifestly phony argument” since the Hyde Amendment forbidding federal funding of abortion, thereby protecting consciences, is a rider attached to the health appropriations bill requiring annual renewal. Given the current climate, this is a tenuous protection at best. Furthermore, my source indicated, Mr. Dodd looked pained to make this argument knowing just how phony it was.

Make no mistake, if Congress does not deal honestly with this issue, it has the potential to derail health care reform.

But, consider the even greater consequences of failure to include a conscience clause.

Health care reform without a conscience clause would force Catholic and other faith-inspired health care facilities, true to their mission, to shutter, thus depriving the poorest of critical health care. In Virginia alone, 11 Catholic hospitals serve one-third of the population.

The possibility that health care reform could be fast-tracked through reconciliation, rendering it filibuster-proof — potentially enacting abortion-on-demand nationally by a simple majority vote — would be the worst possible outcome.

Far better to work through this very difficult issue — which is every bit as difficult, if not more, than bridging the differences over health care reform strategy — than to shove through “phony” conscience protections just to get a bill. It won’t be easy. But, then, like John F. Kennedy, Mr. Obama’s mantra is apparently not to shy away from challenges.

In early May, the White House worked to meet this challenge by bringing together those on opposite sides of abortion’s divide; yet by month’s end, a crazed fanatic had snuffed out the God-given life of Kansas late-term abortion doctor, George Tiller.

Cormac Burke — Irish priest and prolific author — reflected earlier this year on the root causes of this cultural divide at a Witherspoon Institute/Ethics & Public Policy Center forum on “feminine identity,” commenting that he found the United States in the 1950s palpably wholesome. But, when he returned in the late ‘60s, he was stunned to see how jaded Americans had become.

The twin sexual and psychedelic revolutions were pivotal to this cultural change, paving the way for the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, making it official that “free love” is not free.

Now, 36 years later — 50 million aborted children having paid the “free love” tab with their lives — if health care reform liberalizes abortion laws further, the cost will climb. And, the wounds will fester, causing increasing radicalization on both sides in the same way black enslavement catalyzed the fanaticism of John Brown — in Herman Melville’s words, the “meteor” of the Civil War.

Only by respecting consciences can we avert the tragedy of America becoming an even larger killing field — both of doctors who practice the healing arts, however misguided they might be; and of the unborn, who will never know the beauty of life, let alone the thrill of liberty.

What a wholesome change if, as he has promised, Mr. Obama’s health care bill, in fact, offers “robust” conscience protections for health care providers and patients.

But, in the spirit of Ronald Reagan, should we “trust but verify” and ask if this means Mr. Obama now backs the Coburn conscience clause? From the Senate Health Committee’s vote, the answer is apparently not, which makes Mr. Obama’s promise of “robust” conscience protections sound like more smooth-talking from a man desperate for a health care bill, no matter the cost.

Mary Claire Kendall was special assistant to the assistant secretary for health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 1989-93.

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