President Obama, a supporter of reproductive rights, forcefully reiterated in his speech to Congress this week that his healthcare plan would not lead to government funding of abortion.

The trouble is, abortion foes don’t believe him. They are working hard to persuade Americans that Obama is wrong -- and have even created ads that evoke “Harry and Louise,” the fictional couple that helped tank the Clinton-era attempt at healthcare reform:

“They won’t pay for my surgery,” says an elderly man sitting at a kitchen table. “What are we going to do?”


“But honey, you can’t live this way,” says his wife, patting his arm.

“And to think that Planned Parenthood is included in the government-run health plan, and spending tax dollars on abortions,” he replies. “They won’t pay for my surgery, but we’re forced to pay for abortions.”

The ad, created by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, ran for two weeks in August in five states (California not among them). The ad has been criticized by people on both sides of the healthcare debate as a simplistic and inflammatory depiction of the reform measures Congress is considering.

But the criticism may be beside the point.

What the ad does is neatly summarize what foes of abortion contend: No matter what the president has said, if he gets the bill he wants, taxpayer dollars will end up paying for abortions.

The next few weeks, abortion foes believe, will be crucial.

“It was easy in past election cycles for [antiabortion] people to sit back and think that everything would be taken care of,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports antiabortion female candidates. “There was a [Republican] president in the White House who could veto, and there was never a threat of an override. Now we are looking at a complete undoing.”

Her group is airing a television ad in Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, attacking the Democrat for “pushing a massive government-run healthcare system requiring taxpayer funding for abortions.” The ad is part of a $2-million campaign, Votes Have Consequences, targeting a dozen vulnerable senators and representatives.

The logic goes like this: Most of the proposals for expanding coverage include a provision for people who can’t afford private health insurance. They could receive federal subsidies to help them buy insurance. Abortion foes say that if a private plan offers abortion coverage and a federal subsidy is used to purchase it, this would mean taxpayers are subsidizing abortion.


Abortion rights supporters say that scenario twists the facts.

“The president made clear that no federal funding would be used for abortion,” said Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy and advocacy of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “It’s time to stop spreading misinformation and creating confusion and distractions to undermine healthcare reform.”

Abortion rights supporters say that a proposal by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), which the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently passed narrowly, would ensure that no federal dollars pay for abortions.

Capps’ amendment seeks to distinguish between public and private money. Under any insurance purchased with federal help, individuals would pay the portion of premiums used for abortion services. Federal money, in theory, would not pay for the procedure.

How? Separate accounts would be created to keep federal dollars from co-mingling with an individual’s contributions. So, in essence, federal dollars would not support abortions, even if they pay for other health coverage.

Abortion foes call this “an accounting scheme” and say that the amendment does not give them the guarantees they seek.

“This is something we are very familiar with -- the phony compromise,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.


Stop the Abortion Mandate, a coalition of about 70 conservative political and religious groups, has alerted its grass roots -- with videos, e-mails, robocalls and TV ads. In July, 20 of their leaders held a conference call, which they said attracted more than 36,000 listeners.

“Within 72 hours after that call, we know of 100,000 e-mails and calls to Congress,” said David Bereit, national director of the antiabortion group 40 Days for Life, who organized the coalition with Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life.

A counter-event took place in August, when a coalition of about 30 liberal religious groups organized a conference call under the banner 40 Days for Health Reform.

During that call, White House domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes told an estimated 140,000 listeners that “federal funds will not be used for abortion coverage.” Obama spoke as well, reiterating Barnes’ points and accusing those who say otherwise of “bearing false witness.”

Abortion foes were not persuaded.

“We think there is a very active effort to muddy the waters and to put out disinformation, and regrettably, the president has been part of that,” said Johnson of National Right to Life.

Added Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life: “There is never going to be a bill that has ‘abortion’ written in capital letters with red arrows saying ‘abortion here!’ It’s a technical issue that will come down to how the courts interpret it once it passes.”


Yoest said she was encouraged that, in response to her request for a meeting, the White House invited her to meet next Thursday with Barnes and Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House’s Council on Women and Girls.

“If the president wants to talk about common ground, he will seriously think about the fact that over 70% of the American people are opposed to funding abortion with their tax dollars,” she said.

Such figures are invoked by both sides. Yoest’s assertion comes from a November 2008 Zogby poll, which asked whether the Hyde Amendment should be repealed. The law bars the use of federal funds for abortions in all but a few cases, such as rape or incest. About 70% of respondents said no, said independent pollster John Zogby. He said the poll was commissioned by a conservative group.

In July, the National Women’s Law Center, which supports abortion rights, released a poll that found 71% of 1,000 likely voters favored including reproductive services, such as birth control and abortion, in healthcare reform.

This week has been busy for those on both sides of this debate.

On Tuesday, when Obama gave a speech to America’s schoolchildren, Students for Life asked high school students to wear white T-shirts with the slogan “Abortion is not healthcare” to class.

On Wednesday, in his healthcare address to Congress, the president firmly stated that “under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions.”


Still concerned, members of Stop the Abortion Mandate held private meetings Thursday with members of Congress and their staffs. Also Thursday, the group released a poll that found that government funding of abortion is unappealing to the independent voters whose support the president seeks to enact his reforms.

(Capps’ amendment was too complicated to distill into a poll question, said Alex Bratty of Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the poll among 800 likely voters.)

“The president does not want this to become an abortion debate,” said Dannenfelser, “because he will lose if it does.”