John McCormack of the Weekly Standard takes issue with our editorial, "Crying Wolf":

The editors of Commonweal try to claim that the Hyde amendment would apply to the community health centers:

"since such money will in any case be channeled through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where the Hyde Amendment obtains, there is no good reason to suppose that it will be exempt from the amendments constraints. [...] the Hyde Amendment works only if it covers everything HHS spends."

But the Hyde amendment does not say that "none of the funds channeled through HHS" may pay for elective abortions; it says "none of the funds appropriated by this act" may pay for elective abortions. A Hyde-like amendment needs to be included in each different act authorizing public health programs, or the programs will end up paying for abortions, just as Indian Health Services did long after the Hyde amendment was on the books.

McCormack doesn't mention that current federal regulations prohibit "any programs or projects supported in whole or in part by federal financial assistance, whether by grant or contract, appropriated to the Department of Health and Human Services and administered by the Public Health Services" from performing elective abortions (42 C.F.R. 50.301, 50.303). President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary ofHealth and Human Services, have promised to maintain these regulations. (As I write, it has just been announced that the President will formalize this promise with an executive order.) But some prolife critics still aren't satisfied with such assurances. Regulations, they say, are no substitute for statutes, and wherever statutes fail to prohibit the federal government from paying for elective abortions, it's a safe bet the courts will force it to pay for them.

Now,the funding for community health centers appropriated by the Senate bill is to be added straight to HHS funding already subject to the Hyde Amendment. That amendment would become totally ineffectual if HHS could simply take out of one pocket what Hyde prevents it from taking out of another. If the courts did force HHS to use the money appropriated by the Senate bill for abortion services, they would in effect be nullifying the Hyde Amendment —and there is absolutely no reason to think the courts are inclined to do this.

McCormack mentions the Indian Health Services. He should also have mentioned that as soon as it was discovered that the statutes governing federal funding for the Indian Health Services required the government to pay for elective abortion, those statutes were changed to fit the Hyde amendment. In general, wherever there has been an apparent conflict between the principle behind the Hyde amendment and other federal statutes, Hyde has prevailed. McCormack might also have mentioned that last year community health centers received $2 billion of stimulus funds, which, like the funds appropriated by the health-insurance reform bill, are not subject to the Hyde amendment. Have the courts required the CHCs to use some of that money for abortion services? No. Did the CHCs decide on their own to use any of that money for abortion? No again. In our editorial, we noted that CHCs have never provided abortions. McCormack is incredulous:

[Commonweal's editors] do not provide a source for this claim. The National Right to Life Committee points out there's good reason to doubt it. Community health centers aren't required to report if they perform abortions, and there are "reproductive rights" organizations that advise community health centers on how to go about performing abortions and get around the law.

It's true: our one-page editorials don't come with footnotes. But since McCormack asked, our source is the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC). According to Dan Hawkins, senior vice president of policy and programs for the association, community health centers "have never performed abortions.... They do not plan to or seek to become a provider of abortions. They don't do that." (McCormack may also want to read this official statement from the NACHC.) The real question is: Does McCormack have any evidence that community health centers have performed abortions—I mean any evidence besides the lame observation that the CHCs "aren't required to report if they perform abortions"? McCormack's argument here is essentially a version of Donald Rumsfeld's infamous line, "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence"; apparently the folks at the Weekly Standard can still say it with a straight face. McCormack has discovered that prochoice groupswould like the CHCs to start performing abortions, and have proposed strategies for getting around the Hyde amendment. This fact is as unsurprising as it is irrelevant. The question is not whether prochoice activists want community health centers to offer abortion, but whether those centers actually do offer abortions, or are likely to once the Senate bill passes.

Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review endorses McCormack's muddled intervention: "The editors of Commonweal, it turns out, don't know what they're talking about." Punnuru, it turns out, doesn't offer an argument on the question in dispute, so it's hard to tell whether he knows what he's talking about. I have my doubts. He asks us to "leave aside the merits for a moment and talk politics."

Say you're a Democrat whose constituents lean pro-life but you don't really care much about the issue yourself. You want to vote with your party, and you think there's enough of a debate about whether the bill involves government funding of abortion or not that you can get away with supporting it. Any Democrat who reasons this way is kidding himself. It is the bulk of pro-lifers—and in particular the ones most active on the issue—who define that label for political purposes. Who are these people more likely to side with and trust in this dispute? The National Right to Life Committee, or Commonweal? The Catholic bishops—most of whom support national health insurance—or the Catholic Health Association? The Democrats who are bucking their party, or the ones who are going along with it? Laura Ingraham or Ruth Marcus?

This is a textbook example of the ad hominem argument: not "Whose arguments are better?" but "Whose arguments will be assumed to be better?" Pundits usually ask this second question when they find the answer to the first inconvenient. But in this case I wonder whether the folks at the Weekly Standard and the National Review even bothered with the first question. Certainly nothing they have published on the subject evinces any familiarity with the best arguments of their opponents.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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