One of the most controversial issues related to the health care debate currently raging in Congress is whether the government plan, like most private plans, should cover the cost of abortions. And compromise on the issue may be impossible as Republicans and some moderate Democrats continue their campaign to distract the public by focusing on divisive issues like abortion. Dana Goldstein of the American Prospect writes today about the smear campaign, disseminated by conservative media outlets like Fox News, to portray health care reform as a tacit approval of government subsidized abortion:

Abortion is far cheaper and safer than pregnancy and childbirth and prevents society from shouldering the cost of children parents aren't prepared to care for. President Obama has said his health-reform goals are to offer Americans more health choices, bring down costs, and make our society, as a whole, a healthier one. In that context, abortion coverage is a no-brainer.

If every American were going to be covered by government-funded health insurance, we wouldn't be debating this topic. While constantly grandstanding on abortion, our political elites have been surprisingly adept at making sure women with the ability to pay -- in other words, the daughters, sisters, and girlfriends of politicians -- will always have access to abortion. But by maintaining a system full of inequities, in which women with fewer options and resources are more likely to rely on the new public plan, Democratic leaders have allowed abortion opponents, once again, to hijack a policy debate. And that, sadly, is uniquely American.

More than torpedoing compromise, though, pro-lifers from both sides of the aisle are actively trying to get abortion spiked from any bill that moves through Congress. Last month, 19 Democrats wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that they would not “support any healthcare proposal unless it excludes abortion from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan."

And President Obama is staying out of it. Louisiana Republican John Fleming claimed recently that "by being silent on this issue [Obama is] actually making an affirmative statement in favor of taxpayer abortions." That wouldn't be so bad, but instead it's something much worse. As Ezra Klein points out today, the health care discussion is being run by centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans. So by staying silent on the issue, Obama is not effectively condoning government subsidized abortion; he's letting it die on the table.

Quote of the Day

From Bill O'Reilly, responding on the air to Canadian viewer Peter Gillies, who noted that Canadians have higher life expectancies under their healthcare system than we do under ours:

Well that's to be expected, Peter, because we have ten times as many people as you do. That translates to ten times as many accidents, crimes, down the line.

Note that this wasn't just an off-the-cuff howler.  O'Reilly chose to air Gillies' letter and had his response all teed up on the prompter.  Here are the alternatives for how this happened: (a) Not a single person on his staff noticed that this was nonsensical.  (b) Someone noticed but didn't have guts to tell O'Reilly he was wrong.  (c) Someone noticed, told O'Reilly, but was unable to convince him that he'd flubbed his fourth grade arithmetic.  (d) O'Reilly does this stuff all by himself and doesn't show it to anyone before airtime.  I'm going with (b).

Selling Your Kidney

Oddly enough, a persistently popular topic of conversation in the blogosphere concerns the ethics of paying people to donate kidneys.  It just goes to show the power of Virginia Postrel, who donated one of her kidneys to a friend and has written about it frequently since then.

The idea, frankly, makes me very, very queasy.  Offering large sums of money to people in desperate straits to sell a kidney?  I'm just not there.  But today, Ilya Somin takes on three common objections to "exploiting the poor" in an effort to persuade doubters like me:

I. Poor People Are Allowed to Take Much Greater Risks for Pay. Many organ market critics may be unaware of the fact that the risks of donating a kidney (the main proposed organ market) are actually very small....If it is somehow wrong to allow poor people to assume these very minor risks in exchange for pay, why should they be allowed to brave vastly greater dangers for money? Military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and others accept far greater risks to life and limb than kidney donors do.

....II. Is Preventing "Exploitation" Important enough to Justify Killing Thousands of People?....80,000 lives per year in the US alone could be saved by legalizing kidney markets. Even if you find the "exploitation" of poor people in organ markets morally repugnant, you have to ask whether following that moral intuition is so important that it justifies sacrificing all those lives.

....III. Organ Sales are Actually Good for Poor Donors. Given the minimal risks of organ donation, it is highly likely that kidney markets will actually benefit poor donors far more than they could conceivably harm them. The logic isn't complicated. After all, one of the main problems that poor people face is lack of money....If the poor person reasonably believes that the risk is worth it, I don't see why the government should force her to choose otherwise.

This is all very logical, as libertarian arguments tend to be, and the fact that my instincts scream that this is a bad idea is hardly a persuasive counterargument.  But I'll make a few others as well.

First: entering a generally risky profession is different than being coerced to do a specific act because you're feeling specifically desperate at a specific time.  At least, it feels quite different to me.  The other two arguments, baldly utilitarian though they are, strike me as more persuasive.

Second: Would this would be a global market?  My discomfort with the idea is doubled or tripled at the idea of luring the poor in Bangladesh or Liberia into donating kidneys.  Am I right to feel this way?

Third: I'll admit that my moral sense is affected by how much a kidney is worth.  (I'm taking Somin's word for the fact that the risk involved is actually fairly small.)  If the going price were $10,000, that seems like a bad deal.  If it were $100,000 — well, that really could make a difference to a poor family.  Hmmm.

Fourth: This one is by far my most important objection: right now both the law and the taboo against selling organs applies to all organs.  But if we make an exception for kidneys, does that weaken the taboo and make it more likely that markets will develop in other organs?  Obviously it wouldn't for donations that would kill you, but how about corneas?  You've got two of 'em, after all.  Or maybe a piece of one lung?  Or a chunk of something else.  And then another chunk.  Would venture capitalists start insisting on organ donations from entrepreneurs to prove their seriousness before they put up money of their own?  Could a bank ask a bankruptcy judge to demand a kidney donation in order to pay off a loan?

I'm not generally a big fan of slippery slope arguments, but they do have their place.  History suggests that once the rich and powerful figure out a way to exploit the poor in one way, they'll pretty quickly start pushing the envelope in related directions as well.  So, yeah, this makes me pretty nervous.

But it's not as if my mind is made up.  Mainly, things are kind of slow today so I thought I'd toss in a post on an offbeat topic and let everyone talk about it.  Obviously, for example, you might feel quite differently about the whole thing depending on what kind of regulatory regime was put in place.  Comments?

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale—a threatened species in Canada—turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska.

The 18½ Minute Gap

Analysts have tried for years to recover the famous 18½ minute gap from Richard Nixon's taped conversation with Bob Haldeman a few days after the Watergate break-in.  No dice.  So far, it just doesn't look possible.

But Haldeman also took notes of that conversation.  The pages that correspond to the gap appear to have been deep-sixed at the same time the tape was erased, but a Watergate buff named Phil Mellinger, a former NSA systems analyst, has proposed a way to recover the notes anyway.  David Corn has the news:

Mellinger had an idea: electrostatic detection analysis. That's a proven forensic technique used to capture indentations and impressions on a piece of paper—such as the marks made on a page in a pad by a pen writing on the pages above it.

....Days after his eureka moment, Mellinger emailed David Paynter, the archivist in charge of the Watergate records, requesting that the Archives submit the two pages of Haldeman notes to this procedure....After he filed his request, a document forensics expert at the Archives examined the Haldeman notes, found indented writing on the second page, and concluded that electrostatic detection analysis could work on this document, according to Paynter. So Paynter recommended to higher-ups at the Archives that the Haldeman notes be tested. At press time, Paynter was awaiting the green light from his superiors. "The reason we're going forward with this," Paynter says, "is that we've already tried with the tape itself. Here's another avenue to shed light on an important episode in history. It's very exciting."

If they successfully recover the notes, maybe we can turn them back into tapes by having William Shatner do a dramatic reading?

Marines from India Company, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, take a break during a hike on a Middle Eastern military base June 29, 2009. The 22nd MEU conducted a theater security cooperation exercise with a regional military to enhance interoperability and tactical proficiency between forces. The 22nd MEU is currently serving as the theater reserve force for U.S. Central Command. (Official Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David Castillo)

Marc Lynch reports:

China officially announced the launch of its long-rumored Arabic TV station CCTV the other day.  It thus joins the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and Iran — and possibly soon India — in having a state-backed satellite television station broadcasting in Arabic.   Why, given that none of them are likely to ever capture much of a market share or have much impact on Arab public opinion?

Good question!  As it turns out, Marc doesn't really have a clue himself.  But hey — if the United States can sponsor a useless, expensive media sinkhole, then I guess the Chinese figure they can do it even better.  Or something.

Or maybe it's just an example of that famous long-term Chinese thinking.  Maybe they don't really need an Arabic-language propaganda outlet now, but they might need one in 2050.  And if they do, they'll be prepared.

Barack Obama's former doctor thinks Barack Obama is wrong about health care. David Scheiner, M.D., thinks Obama and Congress should be pursuing a government-run single-payer system. That's probably because such systems are cheaper and produce better health outcomes than our current system. But nevermind that. Scheiner and the advocacy organizations Physicians for a National Health Program, Healthcare-NOW, and Public Citizen are holding a press conference and rally for single-payer in Washington on Thursday. Needless to say, it won't go anywhere. The president actually said in the past that he supported single-payer, but that's gone out the window due to the vagaries of a political system that gives Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe, Chuck Grassley, and other small-state senators who have taken large amounts of money from the health care industry enormous amounts of power over health care reform.

If Dr. Scheiner really wants single-payer, he should support political reform—including publicly-funded elections, for example—first. He should also read that Hendrik Hertzberg article I mentioned earlier.

Today's New York Times includes a photograph that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the health care fight going on in the Senate Finance committee. It's here. As Ezra Klein explains, you should be thinking about who is not in the photo.

The latest news on the health care front is that the version of the bill the Senate Finance committee is working on will not include a public option or a requirement that employers provide insurance for their workers. Meanwhile, "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House are still fighting Energy and Commerce committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) over that committee's bill. There are a couple of ways to think about these conflicts.

Despite their intransigence, lawmakers who oppose the public option often represent districts that would benefit greatly from a public plan. Jacob Hacker, a Yale political science professor and public option expert, explains:

A public health plan will be particularly vital for Americans in the rural areas that many Blue Dogs represent. These areas feature both limited insurance competition and shockingly large numbers of residents without adequate coverage. By providing a backup plan that competes with private insurers, the public plan will broaden coverage and encourage private plans to reduce their premiums. Perhaps that's why support for a public plan is virtually as high in generally conservative rural areas as it is nationwide, with 71 percent of voters expressing enthusiasm.