Push to ban federal cash for abortion

A bipartisan group of House members is pushing for language to prevent any federal funds in a healthcare reform bill from being used for abortions.

The members say healthcare reform must include an explicit ban on the use of taxpayer money for abortions to prevent them from increasing as a result of the legislation. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) said he will press for such language during a markup of healthcare reform in the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week.

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Pitts is likely to have  the support of at least three Democrats who sit on that panel, but other Democrats oppose any language explicitly banning the use of funds for abortions. Interest groups on both sides of the issue are already lobbying, meaning this abortion debate will play out as members take on the difficult task of moving the contentious healthcare bill through committee.

The healthcare reform bill under consideration doesn’t address federal abortion funding. However, abortion-rights opponents believe abortion could be covered as part of the minimum benefits provided under the healthcare plans mandated by reform legislation. Given past court decisions and President Obama’s support for abortion rights, abortion is likely to be covered, Pitts said.

“According to the president, in his own words, central to the idea of healthcare is the idea of reproductive health or abortion,” Pitts said. “That will be considered a minimum benefit.”

A group of 20 House Democrats who oppose abortion rights sent a letter last month to House leaders saying that any mandated coverage of abortions is “unacceptable.” Like Pitts, the Democrats said that an explicit ban is necessary to prevent abortion services from being included in a government-subsidized healthcare plan.

One Democrat who signed the letter, Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), supports Pitts’s effort to restrict taxpayer funding of abortion through amendments to the House bill, according to Stupak’s spokesman, Nick Choate. Stupak and two other Democrats who added their names to the letter, Reps. Charlie Melancon (La.) and Mike Doyle (Pa.), will get to vote on Pitts’s amendments as members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Pitts’s proposed ban would augment the Hyde Amendment, which has prevented any Medicaid funds from funding abortions since 1976. Because the Hyde Amendment, named after its initial sponsor, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), has applied only to the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, it would have little effect on the latest proposals for government subsidies and mandates to increase healthcare coverage.

The amendments will face stiff resistance from most Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Pro-choice members will oppose any efforts by anti-choice Republicans or others to use the healthcare reform bill to expand prohibitions on legal medical procedures,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the committee’s vice chairwoman.

A similar ban, proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), failed when it came up for a vote before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which later approved a healthcare reform bill.

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Abortion-rights advocates dismissed the notion that the healthcare bill would automatically lead to an increase in abortions and public abortion funding.

The legislation doesn’t specifically mention abortion, said Adam Sonfield, senior public policy associate at the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute. While the bill would give the secretary of Health and Human Services some power over which health benefits insurers must provide, it’s not clear that the Obama administration would force insurers to cover abortion, Sonfield said. He noted that Democrats don’t seem to have the appetite to overturn the Hyde Amendment, an issue that has been fought over for more than three decades.

“I can’t imagine even this administration wanting to go out on a limb and require abortion coverage,” Sonfield said. “More likely, it will be left to individual insurers, which is the way it is right now.”

President Obama and his aides haven’t clearly stated whether he supports the use of taxpayer funds for abortion in the new healthcare bill. But they also haven’t ruled it out. When asked directly about it Sunday, White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said that federal funding of abortion is a “controversial issue” and is “one of the questions that is playing out in this debate.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the president agrees that “a benefit package is better left to experts in the medical field to determine how best and what procedures to cover.”

Those who oppose abortion, however, remain convinced that the healthcare bill will only lead to funding for more of the procedures.

“The Obama administration has been attempting to smuggle into law the greatest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade, and the statement is significant because they’re starting to be fleshed out on what they’re up to,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.