By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Abortion, health care and the media

John Boehner

While driving to work yesterday, I heard House Republican leader John Boehner on NPR, claiming — as he has on any number of occasions — that the health-care-reform bill now being considered by the House would allow for “taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Based on the best available evidence, what Boehner said was not true. That he and other health-bill opponents keep getting away with it exposes a flaw in the news media that goes back at least to the days of Joseph McCarthy. That is, journalists regularly report the words of powerful figures, but only rarely challenge them on the facts. It’s just one of the reasons that President Obama’s quest for near-universal health care is hanging by a thread, and could still be defeated.

A bit of review. Last year the House and the Senate both passed health-care-reform bills with language aimed at ensuring that the current ban on federal funding of abortions would remain in place. Pro-life activists claim the House language is tougher, but other observers say the two bills would accomplish the same thing. Here is Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a recent appearance on ABC News’ “This Week”:

The president has said from the outset, we don’t want to change the status quo on abortion funding. Neither the Senate or the House bill has any federal funding for abortion, none. Yes, abortion services are provided, and people will pay out of their own pockets, in both the Senate and the House, but they do it in slightly different ways.

Now, I understand that Sebelius isn’t a neutral analyst. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who wrote the anti-abortion language that’s in the House bill, says he will oppose the Senate bill, which is under consideration by the House this week. So it’s complicated. Yet there are ample reasons to believe that the concerns Stupak has voiced are wrong, and that, therefore, Boehner and his ilk are exploiting the always-volatile issue of abortion rights for sheer political gain, knowing they can get away with it. Here are three compelling pieces of evidence:

1. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonpartisan Web site reports that Stupak is just plain wrong — as in “false” — in claiming that every enrollee in the government health-care exchanges that would be created by the proposal would be required to help fund abortion. In addition, PolitiFact notes that the Senate anti-abortion language was written by Sen. Ben Nelson, who’s pro-life. Finally, PolitiFact looks at a claim that a loophole would allow federally funded community health centers to provide abortions as “highly misleading” and “barely true.”

2. A serious pro-life Democrat, Rep. Dale Kildee, announced yesterday that he will support the Senate language after concluding that it will not lead to taxpayer funding of abortions. “I have listened carefully to both sides, sought counsel from my priest, advice from family, friends and constituents, and I have read the Senate abortion language more than a dozen times,” Kildee, who once studied for the priesthood, told the New York Times. “I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde Amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion.”

3. A coalition representing more than 50,000 Catholic nuns released a letter yesterday supporting the health-care proposal, including the Senate language, thus contradicting a stand taken by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Have the nuns suddenly become pro-choice? No, they have not, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion,” Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, is quoted as saying. “From our reading of the bill, there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.”

Legalisms aside, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today predicts that the health-care bill, if it becomes law, will lead to a dramatic decrease in the number of abortions, since research has shown that access to health care correlates with fewer abortions.

Since the health-care debate began a year ago, Obama and the Democrats have done a miserable job of explaining the stakes, and the media have largely engaged in their typically mindless “he said/she said” horse-race coverage. When the media do attempt to tease out the truth (as in this CNN “Fact Check”), the results are often muddled with so much fake even-handedness that news consumers are left not knowing what to think.

Perhaps in examining just this small aspect of the debate, we can detect a larger pattern.

Photo (cc) by republicanconference and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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And so they meet again


Anonymous comments again


  1. Steve Stein

    One of the problems is that there’s an imbalanced media landscape. There’s the so-called liberal media like CNN and the Washington Post who strive for this “on-the-one-hand-ism” where statements from both sides are treated as equally true.

    Then there’s Fox, which makes very little effort at balance and repeats Republican talking points as facts. Fox is the most trusted source for TV news.

    The inescapable and sad conclusion is that most news viewers do not want to have to think and examine disparate statements for accuracy. They want to be told how it is, with little or no intrusion by troublesome contrary views.

  2. BP Myers

    Still trying to get my head around how the Commerce Clause, which allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce, allows them also to regulate health insurance companies, who are barred from engaging in interstate commerce.

    But the Wall Street Journal nailed what is really happening:

    “Certainly some uninsured use emergency rooms in lieu of primary care physicians, but the majority are young people who forgo insurance precisely because they do not expect to need much medical care. When they do, these uninsured pay full freight, often at premium rates, thereby actually subsidizing insured Americans.

    “The mandate’s real justifications are far more cynical and political. Making healthy young adults pay billions of dollars in premiums into the national health-care market is the only way to fund universal coverage without raising substantial new taxes. In effect, this mandate would be one more giant, cross-generational subsidy—imposed on generations who are already stuck with the bill for the federal government’s prior spending sprees.”

    This looting from the young to pay for the old must end. Demographically, it is unsustainable.

  3. L.K. Collins

    The inescapable and sad conclusion is that most news viewers do not want to have to think and examine disparate statements for accuracy. They want to be told how it is, with little or no intrusion by troublesome contrary views.

    And unfortunately there are thousands and thousands of journalists and opinion shapers, and bloggers who will tell them and claim those of opposing views to be liars and dissemblers and partisan for political purposes whle citing as proof reasonable, but eminently rebutable data and sources..

  4. Mr. Stein is correct. There is much more comfort on the right in general that they are correct, even when they are demonstrably wrong (global warming, evolution, etc.). The nature of liberalism is diversity and that means understanding up front that you don’t have all the answers– because there are different answers for different constituencies. Righties say the left has MSNBC to counter Faux News; I’ll start to believe that when Fox gives up a three hour morning show to a former Democratic congressman.

    BTW, using Stupak’s logic, if I oppose the death penalty or the Iraq War, can I stop Congress now?

  5. BP Myers

    PS: Who is going to treat these 30 or 40 million new patients?

    Or is the Wall Street Journal right, and most of them do not require health care?

    It can’t be both.

  6. Michael Hill

    Re the contention that this bill loots the young to pay for the old. That’s what insurance does — all of us who don’t need it pay for those who do. If you never have a car accident (and many don’t) your car insurance pays for those who do have accidents. If your house doesn’t burn down, you pay for those that do. Etc. Same with health care; those who don’t get sick pay for those who do. We get insurance because there is a chance we will get sick. The way to make the health insurance system work is to get everyone in it, to have a bigger risk pool. Those young people may not think they need it (who does when they are young?) but consider two things: 1) they might get hit by a bus, which could be a big one made of steel or another one made of, say, carinoginic cells. Then their health costs will soar and they will not be paying out of pocket (as the WSJournal claims), they will most likely be declaring bankruptcy (health problems being the leading cause of that) and then we will all pay their bills. 2) One day those young people will get old. So they can pay low health insurance premiums now and low health insurance premiums then, or they can pay no premiums now and high ones when they get old. Either way, they will pay, so there is no looting of the generations going on.

  7. The bill is available for reading, correct? If so, while it would undoubtedly be hard work slogging through it, a reading would answer the question rather simply, wouldn’t it? Rather than relying on anyone’s interpretation, I mean.

  8. L.K. Collins

    Mr. Hill’s remarks on the nature of insurance go to the heart of why universal, single-payer health care is appropriate if one considers health care an entitlement.

  9. BP Myers

    @Michael Hill used a whole bunch of words, none of which support the constitutionality of the federal government regulating health care.

    @Michael Hill also said “One day those young people will get old.”

    And there’ll be nobody left at the bottom of the pyramid to pay for their health care.

    It’s a wonder boomers can sleep at night.

  10. LFNeilson

    It’s supposed to be on line in final form 72 hours before the vote. Haven’t seen an address for it yet, but I’m sure it will be everywhere. Better bone up on your gobbledegook.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @LF and @Jim: Arguments about the way it should be aside, I don’t think there’s any great value to having ordinary citizens like us reading congressional legalese and then kidding ourselves that we understand what it means. You can read the Senate language now, which is what’s at issue in the abortion debate. But that just leads to a whole range of questions. How does it compare with the Stupak language? How does it differ from the Hyde Amendment? Is there any case law out there to suggest that the Senate language would or would not lead to the federal funding of abortions? And on and on.

      I actually think it makes more sense to look at personalities and motives. The Senate language was written by Ben Nelson, who is pro-life. His intentions are clear, even though there’s always a possibility that he and his staff botched it. The folks at PolitiFact, which is nonpartisan, really do have nothing better to do than to analyze this stuff and tell us what it means. Much more reliable than civilian interpretations.

  11. BP Myers

    @L.K. Collins said: Mr. Hill’s remarks on the nature of insurance go to the heart of why universal, single-payer health care is appropriate if one considers health care an entitlement.

    Least then, the government is not requiring you to purchase something from a private company. Me? I’d prefer to pay the government. My personal experience is that my representatives are far more responsive to my needs.

    At any rate, if this current bill passes, I predict it will rightfully suffer the same fate as campaign finance reform, taken apart piece by piece by the courts.

    And then, they truly will need to start over . . . and another five years or a decade will have passed.

  12. Mike Benedict

    @BP wrote: “This looting from the young to pay for the old must end. Demographically, it is unsustainable.”

    In fact, that is precisely the model many, many programs are built on. Indeed, it is credited/blamed for why SS is scheduled to go bankrupt: the pyramid today in America is inverted, so fewer workers are paying into the benefits pool for a larger number of retirees. You old folks want to do something for the country? Try dying faster.

    What LK and others miss, or ignore, is that health care already is the largest single expenditure our government has. In my town and at my company, health care premiums go up in double-digits every year. Rest assured, doctors (even specialists) don’t see their paychecks go up like that, and I would know — I’m married to one.

    What I find interesting is that emerging economies like China are viewed (not necessarily by this blog) with such envy, when in fact, they will be hit even harder than we currently are, thanks to their one-child policy.

  13. Al Fiantaca

    I never liked the argument of the risk pool in the sense that if I was buying individual coverage, I paid one rate, but someone who worked for a small company, with a small group paid a lesser rate, and the fellow getting his insurance as an employee of a large company cost an even smaller amount, yet we could live side by side in the same neighborhood and be of similar circumstances, riskwise. I think the whole idea of risk pool has to be turned on its head, with group population being something more akin to geographic population than who your employment group is, or isn’t.

  14. L.K. Collins

    Sorry Mr. Benedict, I not only didn’t miss the point you are making, I get the sense that you don’t understand either the rationale of insurance or the advantages that truly universal health care coverage can provide.

    If the ability to buy a way around a health care system isn’t restricted, a) the rich (or those who can afford to) will create a multi-tiered health care system by buying “improved” care, and b) will increase the costs of health care for those that can’t.

    I find a multi-tiered system to be offensive, as would most who find themselves being ill and unable to pay for even the most minimal of medical care and intervention.

    Universal, not-for-profit health care, which takes away the buy-around, will take out of the calculus of the affordability issue that skews both the access and delivery of the care.

    I see this as an equal opportunity issue and the “not-from-my-paycheck” entitlement as far less persuasive than the right to medically appropriate care for the sick, whoever the sick might be and whenever they may be sick.

    Let me put this another way.

    Why should my health care premiums pay for your care and rehabilitation after you ski your way into a tree on a slope in Aspen?

    Isn’t that they system we have now?

    I’d rather pay for all to have the same coverage than have to pay selectively for your inability to control your forward momentum.

    And if you think carefully about some of the other positions you have taken and apply your arguments here, you will see that a truly broad-based insurance scheme is the best hedge against discrimination and abuse.

    It may well be the only one.

  15. Mike Stucka

    A Washington Post writer named T.R. Reid had a column on how abortion opponents should be backing universal health care, because it’s linked to lower abortion rates. (His major evidence, though, is one priest and statistics that neglect the correlation-is-not-causation fallacy.)

    If nothing else, the last two paragraphs are food for thought.

  16. BP Myers

    @Mike said: health care premiums go up in double-digits every year. Rest assured, doctors (even specialists) don’t see their paychecks go up like that, and I would know — I’m married to one.

    On that, we can agree. So where is that money going? Into the pockets of insurance companies, their executives, and their shareholders. Middle men who provide not a scintilla of health care to anyone. And this bill, mandating people buy their products, will only make their profits, income, and compensation soar.

    The only way out of this mess is to eliminate the middle man, e.g. with a single-payer public option.

  17. Mike Benedict

    @BP: The money does go to the insurers, but not always as efficiently (i.e., profitably) as you suggest. Witness the disaster that is Rhode Island’s insurance landscape. And BCBS here in Mass. is teetering too, under the weight of innumerable recently hired auditors whose only job is to say “no” to providers. In Mass. today, BCBS has added to all previous paperwork a 2-page form that every provider must fill out for every single patient on every single visit. The paperwork alone is immense. Then factor in the five or six or eight calls (with supporting paperwork submitted each time) a provider must make to get paid.

    BCBS’s standard initial response to any claim my wife has submitted is to reject it. She then spends that many more hours chasing down payment — even when the consult and service were preapproved by … you got it .. BCBS.

    None of this is unusual, btw. Every physician in Massachusetts must endure this.

    This notion that the private sector is capable of handling the mess is absurd. A single-payer public option is indeed the only resolution for this problem today.

    @LK: Please do some reading on how actuarial science works. Thank you.

  18. L.K. Collins

    As one who has been in favor of universal single-payer since before your elementary school days, I welcome you to the correct answer to the health care debate. You’re late to the party!

    As for the rest, it is best not to make assumptions.

    I thought you would have learned that by now.

  19. Mike Benedict

    Uh, LK, under single payer, your health care premiums will “pay for your care and rehabilitation after you ski your way into a tree on a slope in Aspen.” Not sure why you think one eliminates the other.

    Back to the books. There’s still a little time before you die.

  20. L.K.Collins

    You fail to see the see the spread of risk to the greater pool of “investors” .

    Perhaps you should do some research and some of the thinking that you keep telling us that you are so capable of doing.

    Couple of points for you to focus on.

    1. How insurance companies actually make their money. And,

    2. How the approximately 35% of the premium dollar that does not go for claims is actually “spent”.

    And I am so, so sorry that your wife the doctor is not able to support you in the way that you would like to become accustomed. Life’s a bitch, ain’t it.

  21. Mike Benedict

    @LK: Since you claim to know so much, why don’t you explain it for us?

    Then you can help pay for my retirement from the medical bills you incur when we rip you a new one.

  22. L.K. Collins

    “Cause I think we all would like to get a feel for how much of the bluster get in your posts is just noise.

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