Denying public money to fund abortion unfair

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:41 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

On the last day of August, my esteemed op-ed editor handed me a letter from Mr. James D. Miller of Fayette. “A story idea,” my editor said. I really love story ideas. Having something to write about (or photograph, as the case may be) is more than half the battle.

Mr. Miller had written the Missourian, confused about the reportage of a comment by Sen. Claire McCaskill at an Aug. 26 town hall meeting in Jefferson City about health care. Missourian reporter Michael Sewall wrote: “McCaskill also tried to dispel the rumor that abortion would be covered under the new health plan. She said that would be impossible unless an amendment was inserted to repeal the black-letter law, which prohibits the federal government from funding abortion.”

Thus, Mr. Miller wrote in his letter, “What is the ‘black letter law’? When I called Sen. McCaskill’s Washington, D.C., office … the staffer I talked to did not know what this ‘black letter law’ is.”

As far as I can tell, this is a case of jargon making it into a story without explanation. A “black letter law” is a law that is already on the books — a law that already exists and is generally well known. It turns out that Sen. McCaskill was really talking about the Hyde Amendment at the Aug. 26 town hall meeting. I called Sen. McCaskill's office in Washington, and a staffer confirmed that the black letter law she referred to was indeed the Hyde Amendment. 

Congress first passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976 as a legislative response to Roe v. Wade, which was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Nestled into the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 (the current incarnation), it forbids the federal government from funding abortions (with some exceptions for rape, incest and the mother's health). It’s long, but here are the important bits:

  • SEC. 507 (a) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for any abortion.
  • (b) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for health benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion.

Which means, in effect, that neither Medicare nor health insurance for federal employees and military personnel paid for by the federal government can cover abortions. In 1993, the language was added to the law to allow funding of abortions in the case of rape, incest or when the mother’s health was at risk.

In 1980, the Supreme Court decided in Harris v. McRae that the ban on federal funding of abortions was constitutional. Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “It does not follow that a woman's freedom of choice carries with it a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices. … The Hyde Amendment … places no governmental obstacle in the path of a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy.”

Justice Stewart, I respectfully disagree.  

First, think of other rights that we have under the Constitution: freedom of speech, for example. In 2007, the city of Columbia spent almost $40,000 on security to protect members of the National Socialist Movement (aka neo-Nazis) while they held a 45-minute rally downtown. That’s public, taxpayer money. Forty thousand dollars is an absurd amount of money spent to protect the speech of very few people with some ugly, vile views.

I hate what they say. But they have the right to say it, and I’ll pay to protect their rights to say whatever hateful poison they want to spew.

Roe v. Wade said women have the constitutional right to choose an abortion. It’s controversial, and it wasn’t as explicitly stated as freedom of speech, but it is unfair to deny public money to protect this right.

Furthermore, the Hyde Amendment punishes women who can’t afford to choose to terminate a pregnancy. The procedure in the first trimester can cost between $350 and $900, according to Planned Parenthood. This can be prohibitively expensive.

But, I defer to Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said it best in his Harris v. McRae dissent: “The Court's opinion studiously avoids recognizing the undeniable fact that for women eligible for Medicaid — poor women — denial of a Medicaid-funded abortion is equivalent to denial of legal abortion altogether. … If abortion is medically necessary and a funded abortion is unavailable, they must resort to back-alley butchers, attempt to induce an abortion themselves by crude and dangerous methods, or suffer the serious medical consequences of attempting to carry the fetus to term. … The Court's decision today marks a retreat from Roe v. Wade and represents a cruel blow to the most powerless members of our society. I dissent.”

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, and a teaching assistant for the communications law class.


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Frank Gilzow September 9, 2009 | 2:24 p.m.

Ms. O’Neil’s logic is to say the least, creative. She claims that if one has a constitutional right to some activity that is important to them, that there is a commensurate governmental responsibility to pay for that activity. She cites abortion.

What if I were to cite my right – as affirmed by the US Supreme Court – as an individual to own a gun? Does she support federal, state or local assistance to help me purchase that firearm? If so where do I sign up?

What if I were to cite my first amendment right to publish an old fashioned, printed on paper, newspaper? Would she support federal, state or local purchase of the necessary equipment to effect the publication of a competitor for the Missourian? I somehow think not.

Ms. O’Neil posits the Columbia City payment for protection of Nazi free speech as an example of her position. I suspect that if this aspiring reporter were to actually exercise her craft, she would find that the city leaders decided that it was cheaper to pay for police cordons than it was to suffer the financial and societal costs of a riot in the downtown area.

I’m not sure what surprises me most by this article. Is it that the Missourian would publish an opinion piece that clearly lacks logical integrity? Is it the Missourian would knowingly expose the lack of research capability of one of its own staff? Or is it that our students are being taught by instructor who willingly exposes her own error of logic and lack of research in a field she is teaching?

Black Letter Law has nothing to do with it “being on the books”. Rather it is a law that is settled because of its long observance by society or because it has been judged as appropriate by courts of competent jurisdiction. Nothing gets a law placed in this classification quicker than being the subject of a Supreme Court Ruling.

And while I am sure that court watchers are waiting with baited breath now that an exalted soon to be Masters level instructor in communication law has declared that the 5-4 decision in Harris v. McRae is in significant error, I take some level of comfort in knowing that a number of the majority justices in the case are known for their liberal stance including:
Chief Justice Warren Burger of Watergate fame
Justice Potter Stewart who assisted in (for a time) making capital punishment unconstitutional.
Justice Byron White who voted with the majority in the Bakke affirmative action case.

As I said previously, it is certainly a thought provoking article.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 9, 2009 | 2:44 p.m.

Mr. Gilzow:
Obviously feminists love entitlements.
My belief is that those who questioned that their tax money might be routed to provide abortion services is a valid concern.
As I understand it, while the bills being considered for Obamacare do not contain the word "ABORTION" it seems to me that should the government provide taxpayer money to enable women to secure any health insurance policy which covers an abortion or pays a doctor/hospital facility for abortion services, the government has violated the trust of many taxpayers/voters/citizens.

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill September 9, 2009 | 3:00 p.m.

Mr. Gilzow,

First, I am not, as you say, a “soon to be Masters level instructor in communication law.” I am a masters student in photojournalism, and I am a teaching assistant under Sandy Davidson, J.D., Ph.D, for her communications law class, which is a survey course designed for undergraduate journalism students.

And yes, the $40,000 spent to prevent a riot in the case of the neo-Nazi parade was very likely a reduced cost compared to what could’ve happened had there been no police protection. But, the City of Columbia must charge the same amount for a parade permit to the Girl Scouts as they do the National Socialist Movement—there can be no bottle-throwers veto on speech—and pay the costs of maintaining the peace.

Most controversial Supreme Court decisions are ruled 5-4. That I think the four in the dissent were correct in Harris v. McRae to be the morally correct decision is a matter of opinion.

Abortion is an expensive and legal medical procedure. If the government is going to pay for health care (through Medicare or federal employee’s health insurance) I believe they should not be allowed to deny access.

Erin O’Neill

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill September 9, 2009 | 3:34 p.m.

Mr. Shapiro,

Male chauvinists like entitlements too.

Erin O'Neill

(Report Comment)
Mike Sykuta September 9, 2009 | 3:56 p.m.

Ms. O'Neill,

While you are correct in pointing out that your conclusion regarding Harris v. McRae is nothing more (or less) than your opinion, Mr. Gilzow is correct in pointing out that your opinion is based on faulty reasoning--if any reasoning at all. More likely, it is based on your personal opinion regarding health care in general and abortion in particular. It is an emotionally laden opinion that may sound rational grounds, but the article fails to provide evidence of such a sound rational basis.

Your response to his post further demonstrates the fallacy of your argument: the idea that Girl Scouts and neo-Nazi's must pay the same fee for a parade permit. In other words, even these groups must pay to exercise their legal right of free speech and assembly. The Constitution protects against the Government's interference with the exercise of individuals' civil rights. It does not require the Government to affirmatively subsidize and promote the exercise of those rights.

The City's decision to pay for extra police protection for a charged demonstration does not reflect the City's obligation to pay for one's free speech, but it's obligation to maintain public order and enforce private (and public) property rights, even in the face of someone exercising their rights. The free speech is an aggravating factor, not the object of government support in itself.

While you are entitled to your opinion--and the article is an opinion-editorial--the blatant lack of substantiated reasoning takes away from the position you are trying to support.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 9, 2009 | 5:31 p.m.

Ms. O'Neill,


ray shapiro

(Report Comment)
bob wessler September 9, 2009 | 5:33 p.m.

If persons who do not choose to protect themselves pro actively, choosing to engage in sexual activity, the government/taxpayers should not be the agent(s) footing the bill. Rape and incest fall outside of the constraints of consensual activity and a mother's health above the life of the child is humane {from the standpoint of a caretaking role (affection and the emotional health of the child are otherwise strained, at best.)}
A person who is not, therefore, pro active then lives with (what has been lost on many) - responsibility. Sex is supposed to be fun. It's also supposed to create children. Someone who cannot live with having a child ('consequence' - in simple terms,) and whose best thoughts are of abortion, should not even have sex. And taxpayers should not have to bear the responsibility of an irresponsible person. That, would be unfair!

(Report Comment)
Jake Sherlock September 9, 2009 | 5:34 p.m.

When a person doesn't agree with another person's viewpoint, it's all too common to attack the person's logic, reasoning, integrity, etc. etc.

I'm not going to state whether or not I agree with Ms. O'Neill's opinion. But I will respectfully disagree with the notion floated here that her reasoning is faulty. In Ms. O'Neill's view, the right to choose abortion is often impeded by the cost of the procedure. One way to alleviate this is through public funding. There are precedents for this, as Ms. O'Neill points out. There are competing precedents as well, which the other readers here have not-so-respectfully pointed out.

I love debate. I love community conversation. But let's see if we can do it without belittling. It is, after all, just an opinion.

Jake Sherlock
Opinion editor

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 9, 2009 | 6:17 p.m.

@Jake Sherlock:
My opinion could be that abortions used as a sexual life style alternative or as a form of birth control should not be paid by tax monies from the religious right community.
I may also have the personal concern that certain abortions are nothing more then self-indulgent, selfish acts against nature.
However, access to abortion services are not that difficult for women to obtain.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 9, 2009 | 6:39 p.m.

To add to Ray's comment if the woman is on Medicaid.Medicare she can go get her tubes tied through the system or if her man is actually man enough he can get his snipped too.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 9, 2009 | 8:36 p.m.

Or we cold have "government death panels" for those in the womb and for old people who are just taking up room....

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 9, 2009 | 8:44 p.m.

>>> ray shapiro September 9, 2009 | 8:36 p.m.
Or we cold have "government death panels" for those in the womb and for old people who are just taking up room. <<<

Well ray there go you and I out that door then as so many are against anything we post on line as being not in line with the status quo.

See you in hell my brother from another mother.

I'll look for you holding the sign reading "Militant Jews Unite Here". :)

(Report Comment)
Mike Sykuta September 9, 2009 | 9:36 p.m.

Mr. Sherlock,

Since this is just an opinion, perhaps it should have been explicitly labeled as one on the Missourian website rather than posted on the front page in what otherwise appears as a news section, without any additional header or other clarifying indication.

(Report Comment)
Dan Shipley September 9, 2009 | 11:08 p.m.

Dear Ms. O'Neill: The "Hyde" Amendment was modified in 1993 to allow funding for abortions that were caused by rape, incest, or medical conditions that would, "as certified by a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion were performed".
Your claim that the Hyde Amendment was revised to allow abortions "when the mother's health is at risk" is incorrect. Obviously, your opinion would allow for complete abortion-on-demand, as ANY health concern could be used as justification.

(Report Comment)
Jake Sherlock September 9, 2009 | 11:09 p.m.

Mr. Sykuta,

I can't argue with that. My policy has always been that, if opinion pieces are put on the front page, they should be clearly labeled as "COLUMN," "LETTER," "GUEST COMMENTARY" in the headline. Today, we failed to do that. We'll do better next time.

Jake Sherlock
Opinion editor

(Report Comment)
Erin K. O'Neill September 9, 2009 | 11:47 p.m.

Mr. Shipley:

“Abortion-on-demand?” I’m sorry if I was unclear, but is a medical condition that puts a mother “in danger of death” not placing her health at risk?

I do not believe that anyone on either side of the abortion debate thinks that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be made without deep thought and consideration. I think the Hyde Amendment places too high a financial burden on women to make that choice freely.

Between 1973 and 1976, the US government paid for abortion procedures for women who qualified for Medicare, and for women with health insurance paid for by the government. For over 30 years since the Hyde Amendment was passed, the federal government has not funded abortion except, in my opinion, the very extreme cases of rape, incest or “in danger of death.”

Medicare will pay for pre-natal care and the cost of childbirth. As well they should. But the Hyde Amendment takes away choice for women who don’t have the money to pay, who are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised of our society. It is my opinion it is not the government’s place to, in essence, make that choice for them.

Erin O’Neill

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 10, 2009 | 2:43 a.m.

@Erin O'Neill:
(...choice for women who don’t have the money to pay, who are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised of our society. It is my opinion it is not the government’s place to, in essence, make that choice for them...)
The government makes the choice to determine what entitlement programs provide. For example, Food Stamps can not be used for the purchase of a hot out of the oven pizza from Hyvee's food court.
Considering that taxpayer money is used for entitlement programs, I believe it is appropriate for government to determine the pulse of the American people in how the entitlement programs are administered. The choice being made for women is not that you can not get an abortion, but that governmental taxpayer-paid entitlement programs will not.
If the following type of nonprofit agencies did not exist, I could understand your concern for women who don't have the money to pay and consider themselves the most vulnerable and disenfranchised...
Reproductive Health Services
At our three health centers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and
the Bronx, highly trained professionals provide state-of-the-art
reproductive health care. Whether the people we serve need
contraception, a pregnancy test, or abortion counseling and
services, we’re here for our clients – regardless of their age
or ability to pay. Our health center staff is prepared to serve
diverse communities. Medical interpretation for non-English speaking
clients is available.
Our three centers provided 17,000 abortions –
87% in the first trimester
24% of all abortions were medication abortions

Risks associated with surgical abortion include: allergic reactions to the anesthetics; incomplete abortion; infection; heavy bleeding; cut or torn cervix- fewer than one out of 100 first trimester abortions; organ injury- in about 5 out of 1,000 first trimester abortions; undetected ectopic pregnancy, which can be fatal if left untreated; in extremely rare cases death is possible from very serious complications

Interestingly, in the 1980's, when the United Way of New York City took on Planned Parenthood as a "partner," (along with less controversial partners; The Salvation Army and the Red Cross), reactions from individual voluntary contributors and corporate sponsors threatened to withdraw support.
(Withdrawal of support because of "free/based on the ability to pay" Planned Parenthood abortion services.
Hence, I will not contribute to United Way, because I don't want to fund abortions.)
Likening United Way as the flow through of donor/"taxpayer" money and the concern you've addressed, (regarding "fairness"), we developed a system which we termed "donor option" or "designated contributions." We also implemented an exception option.
We empowered the financial contributor.
The cash is still flowing....The services are still being provided...
People's consciences are clear.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 10, 2009 | 3:34 p.m.

("Despite what Obama said, the House bill would allow abortions to be covered by a federal plan and by federally subsidized private plans.
August 21, 2009
Updated: August 25, 2009")

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 10, 2009 | 5:21 p.m.

ray shapiro you and others still fail to realize and over al acknowledge that this Bill is not yet finalized at all nor will be for some time.

Just stop the fear mongering and wait until after it is finalized and signed then pitch your rants.

No wonder why the GOP lost the last election. Don't count your Chickens before you lay them or you might end up with Egg on your face just like after the Obama Speech to the school kids blunder.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 10, 2009 | 5:25 p.m.

("...wait until after it is finalized and signed then pitch your rants.")
That's the funniest thing you've ever said to me...

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 10, 2009 | 6:34 p.m.

ray shapiro seriously how can you honestly rant and rave against and about something that is not actually finalized like it is set in stone.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 10, 2009 | 9:12 p.m.

If you take your own advice Chuck, then you shouldn't have worried about the Adaptive Recreation program funding and possible cuts until the budget had been passed by the council. Somehow, I don't think you could have done that.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 10, 2009 | 9:35 p.m.

Thank you, John Schultz.

(Report Comment)
Melinda Chedid April 19, 2011 | 6:44 p.m.

I'm a disabled woman on Social Security Disability Insurance. I'm only 32 years old and have been married for 4 years.

My husband and I have decided that, based on my physician's advice, I would have an abortion (medication-induced) were I to ever become pregnant. This is because, according to my MD's professional opinion, I could die as a result of being pregnant with my disability. I am not about to risk death and would have an abortion.

It is wrong that Medicare, my insurance, would not pay for me to have an abortion if my life was found to be at risk. I am SHOCKED and APPALLED that my government would rather see me either die or go to a back yard butcher than have a safe, legal, lifesaving abortion. An abortion is a legal surgery in the United States, or at least according to the US Supreme Court.

Get your rosaries off my ovaries! I'm not about to have people of the anti-choice opinion pay for my abortion, however if my life is indeed in danger then it is no longer an elective abortion. If my life is in danger then it is just as necessary as a heart surgery. Would anyone contest a heart surgery?

Abortion is controversial, yes, for reasons that I don't understand. I respect and yet respectfully decline to agree with the opposing view. However, if a woman's life is in danger, or she is the victim of a rape or incest, then how could someone be so cold as to deny her a lifesaving, necessary surgery? That's cold my friends.

I hope that if the time ever comes where it is necessary, despite our careful protection, that an abortion becomes necessary that we have the funds to pay for it. If not then I could die, or I could have to find a "way" to take care of it myself, which could consist of a metal coat hanger and death for me. It wouldn't be as bad though as facing death due to pregnancy; when both could kill you, what would you choose?

I chose to have an abortion should my life be in danger, and I think that my insurance, Medicare, should pay for it if that ever is the medical opinion of my doctors that I must have an abortion. With my disability it is necessary, and I do not want to die because I got pregnant on accident, despite being careful. I'm a married woman with a graduate degree and a lot to live for.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield April 19, 2011 | 8:28 p.m.

"Would anyone contest a heart surgery?"

In the case of someone who needs it because he/she made poor choices such as smoking or overeating, absolutely. It's selfish and irresponsible for people to expect other people to foot the bill for their mistakes.

(Report Comment)

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