The American Congress has stunned many observers by voting to continue the ban on Medicaid funding of abortion. The vote is regarded as a defeat for President Bill Clinton who is a supporter of abortion on demand, and it came as a surprise because Congress is controlled by Democrats. It will no doubt be seen by many as a pro-life victory.
I remain unimpressed. From the very first time that Congress dealt with the issue of Medicaid funding of abortion, the issue has been treated in a cynical fashion. Since 1983, the conniving voting patterns of the American Congress have been the same. In that year the Senate passed, by a comfortable margin, as it had done before, a ban on Medicaid funding. The very same Senate, however, earlier in the year had voted in favour of abortion-on-demand.
This latest vote on abortion funding is not rooted in any kind of respect for human life, but is merely the result of the convoluted politics of selfishness and opportunism which controls American politics.
American government is increasingly run for the benefit of the comfortable majority – middle class, mostly white people with good jobs and nice homes in suburban neighbourhoods. Increasingly lost from sight and evicted from the corridors of power are those who are poor and who for the most part are black, Hispanic or living in inner cities.
For twelve years, under two Republican Presidents, government services to the poor were cut back, while middle class and wealthy American were given tax reductions. Government services which principally benefited the poor were savaged. But this is just the extreme end of a long-term trend. For years, the U.S. has had the smallest government services sector of any industrialized Western country. One cannot help but see elements of both unbridled selfishness and racism in these trends.
It is in this setting that this recent vote must be viewed. In Congress, 157 Republicans voted in favour of the funding ban. They were joined by 98 Democrats – members whose party platform calls for abortion on demand. But Medicaid funding doesn’t have to do with abortion on demand, it has to do with who pays for abortions obtained by poor women. What Congress decided is that middle class taxpayers won’t pay. Not because of respect for life. Not because they question the morality of abortion, but out of the same kind of self-centred complacency and greed which has been the hallmark of American politics for so long.
The voting pattern of 1983 continues today and enables politicians to play a devious game. Abortion on demand remains intact and therefore nothing changes for the vast majority of Americans. At the same time, by voting against abortion funding, politicians can win support for their anti-spending stance because it is only the politically irrelevant poor who are affected. As a final bonus, the clever politicians can portray themselves as moderates on the abortion issue.
The stopping of government funding for abortion in the U.S. is not a significant pro-life victory. All it really means is that poor women will pay for abortions out of their own pockets. Abortion remains as accepted part of American life, in fact a carefully guarded part – and like all good things in America, you pay for it yourself. For over a decade this has been the case, and every year the American abortion rate has been at least 50 percent higher than Canada’s. Meanwhile in Canada the government funds virtually every abortion.
Ending government funding of abortion in Canada would by contrast be a major political victory. Our attitude toward government is utterly different from the American view. Social services, including Medicare, are intended to benefit all Canadians. Anything in Canadian society which forms a major part of Canadian life inevitably has some significant government involvement. To end Medicare funding of abortion would be to send a strong message, that abortion is abhorrent and something to be shunned.
Canadian politicians continue to support government funding of abortion, while their American counterparts vote against it. This is not because American politicians are any more pro-life than our own. What it marks is a fundamental difference in opinion about the role of government in society today.