The gods of discord seem to have upended the health-care debate in this country, producing a conversation almost as chaotic as the system to be changed. The haphazard juggling of precious golden apples will affect millions of lives, but the recent pathetic protestations of powerlessness by centrist Democratic senators and “moderate” Republicans have put reform in grave doubt.
My intemperate proposal: Both universal health care and the pro-life movement would benefit tremendously if they joined forces to push Republicans (even if only a few senators and representatives) to support universal health care that in turn eliminates government funding for abortion. Not modest, perhaps foolishly impossible, but in the end the pro-life movement might find that it has saved few babies (or fetuses — in this column I have no desire to reawaken the animal spirits of the abortion debate, but rather I will assume good-faith actors and hope to sketch a better path for both sides).
It is remarkable that the pro-life movement has not been heard from in the recent cacophony over “death panels,” though its presence clearly exists as subtext. In truth, the pro-life movement has been rather quiet since barbs flew at other pro-lifers, both Republican and Democrat, who voted for Obama. As the victims of such criticism tried to point out, the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade that animated the criticism was truly only faith-based in its belief that a stealth McCain pro-life candidate could squeeze past 60 Democratic senators.
Recent silence may reflect a deeper reckoning on the pro-life side: that 36 years after Roe an exclusively legal focus has failed and will continue to do so absent a broad change in culture and climate. Only these forces, and not the direct powers of presidential appointment, will lead the Supreme Court and Congress toward restrictions on first- and second-trimester abortions. First-trimester abortions, which account for the overwhelming majority of abortions performed in this country, have been entirely removed from any of the symbolic “victories” of the pro-life movement in various Republican legislatures.
That cultural change will only occur in an America with universal health care, an extensive social safety net and reduced child poverty. These policies more fully foster individual responsibility by buffering the massive structural forces that sweep through our economy and which make a mockery of current conservative homilies to near-total individual agency. Such support structures will enable the pro-life movement to win two crucial arguments: First, the mother has a responsibility for her sexual choices and the child growing within her; and second, that the child has the great potential for a good life. Of course, government protections don’t change human failings and are no replacement for foresight, but I think they will create a society much more amenable to the pro-life emphasis on individual responsibility and promise.
A distinction: this argument is not a call for necessary philosophical concordance between liberal social welfare and pro-life issues, though neither does it deny that possibility. Furthermore, it does not indulge in the lazy critique of a group because, though they want to change something, they do not the change the whole world. Rather, it is an argument that in the United States the pro-life battle for public opinion — that imperfect beast that blends heart, reason and miscellaneous brew — will only be won after liberal social welfare policies have been enacted. And no, we aren’t there yet.
But some change can happen now. (Yes, the truth of some slogans can survive their overwork.) For one, this compromise would save pro-lifers the complicity of covering abortion costs that an August 21 Factcheck.org report, “Abortion: Which Side is Fabricating?,” concluded would be included in the House leadership health-care bill. For universal health care advocates the compromise would still put abortion within the reach of low-income families (an August 13 Slate.com article, “Fetal Extraction,” by Meredith Simons, sketched the easy economics of raising private funds for their coverage) while preserving all the cost-reduction and coverage provisions of the bill from painful and wasteful concessions to corporate centrists.
In addition, pro-life support would quickly evaporate any remaining death-panel drivel and reveal how terribly misguided those concerns were from a pro-life perspective.
First, the right’s attacks on consultations about end-of-life-care seemed to spring from some misplaced value of facing death in silent, unplanned chaos. This is the opposite of the necessary pro-life desire to have a frank and wide-ranging discussion of life’s dignity even at its very end, both to change the culture today and guard against government encroachment tomorrow.
Second, the pro-life movement must accustom itself to increased government control (or coercion) over health care because in the end that will be what is required to eliminate abortion in this country. This obscured but lone road to eliminating abortion might give some on the pro-choice left some pause, as should the difficulty of reconciling their rhetoric of personal bodily control with massive government intervention into health-care decisions.
But before those future fissures, this deal might provide a flesh-and-blood example of that rarest of mythological creatures: a truly bipartisan bill. A compromise between universal health care advocates and the pro-life movement would not be flooded by mushy corporate centrism nor created by feeble, split-the-middle op-eds. Instead, it would represent bipartisanship based on an understanding of profound differences but that still seeks to reconcile them (if only briefly) and further the deepest interests of both sides.
Small hopes, but then as the pro-life movement knows well, that’s where they all begin.
Ramon Gonzalez is a sophomore in Branford College.