By Mark Mellman

A few months ago, I warned that some folks were attempting to misuse health care reform to restrict access to abortion. They have come a long way since then, endangering the vital struggle for health care — indeed, torpedoing reform is a key goal for many involved in this effort.

Americans oppose using abortion as a means of derailing health care reform and oppose using health care reform as a means of restricting abortion. The more voters find out about what is happening on Capitol Hill with respect to this issue, the angrier they are getting, because language inserted in the House bill will take away coverage for abortion that tens of millions of women already have.

Taking away existing coverage not only violates the public will, but also does fundamental violence to Democrats’ explicit promise that if you like what you have, you will be able to keep it.

In a national survey we conducted for the Women Donors Network, nearly half (47 percent) of the electorate said, “Political differences should not prevent us from moving forward on an otherwise good health care reform plan.” Another 22 percent believe that health care reform should not move forward unless “a woman’s right to choose an abortion is protected.” Only a 26 percent minority believe that health care reform should not move forward unless “we are certain that government money will not be used for abortion.”

Voters clearly oppose the restrictions embodied in the House bill, rejecting even their underlying premise. By over a 20-point margin, voters believe that those who receive partial subsidies should be able to buy plans that cover abortion. By two-to-one, voters would feel less favorably toward a member of Congress who voted to prohibit subsidy recipients from purchasing an insurance policy with abortion coverage.

Indeed, voters’ antipathy to placing abortion restrictions in health care reform is so strong that their inclusion leads voters to oppose reform itself. By a 16-point margin, voters would oppose a health reform plan that prevented private insurance plans from covering abortion.

Debate on the issue strongly favors opponents of abortion restrictions. We presented voters with an argument against allowing coverage of abortion focused around the view that “taxpayer money should not fund abortion.” Matched against an argument in support of covering abortion that suggested, “health care — not politics — should drive” these decisions, 59 percent subscribed to the pro-choice viewpoint and just 36 percent took the anti-choice position.

At a more fundamental level, voters simply do not want Congress making these decisions. Just 14 percent favor Congress and the president making coverage decisions with respect to abortion. Indeed, despite popular disdain for insurance companies, twice as many would prefer they decide whether to cover abortion instead of having politicians make that determination. A significant plurality (43 percent) support empowering an independent commission to make coverage decisions on abortion.

Americans do not want reform to be an excuse for tightening restrictions on abortion or for taking away health coverage millions already have. Nor do they want an abortion debate to stop reform. Voters want an abortion-neutral health care reform.

The way out of this conundrum is clear to voters, if not to legislators. A compromise offered by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) enjoyed majority support and was fully acceptable to the small minority that favors further restrictions on abortion. What opposition there was to the Capps compromise came primarily from pro-, not anti-choice voters. Nonetheless, the House swept it away in favor of language much more drastic and deeply unpopular.

The Capps language affords an opportunity to untie the Gordian knot in favor of the anti-choice forces, but does so in a way that is at least minimally acceptable to the pro-choice majority.
Mellman, is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate. This column first appeared in The Hill newspaper. Mellman writes a regular column for The Hill.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 12/09