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Abortion issue could unravel House healthcare reform bill

Rep. Bart Stupak wants to make sure no public healthcare funds pay for abortions – and he says he has the votes to block the House bill. Abortion-rights activists seek to keep healthcare reform bills 'abortion neutral.'

By Staff writer / November 3, 2009

Rep. Lois Capps (D) of Santa Barbara held a healthcare forum at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, California on September 2.

Rod Rolle/Sipa Press/Newscom

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Washington

The House is gearing up for floor action on healthcare reform as early as this weekend. But before that can take place, an impasse within the Democratic caucus over abortion – and its place in the healthcare reform legislation – must be resolved. Otherwise, the whole bill could go down.

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Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan is leading the charge among anti-abortion Democrats, who want to amend the bill to strengthen its prohibitions against the use of federal funds for abortions.

Congressman Stupak has said he has 40 Democratic votes in his camp, just enough to keep the bill from reaching the minimum 218 votes needed for a majority. He has not released all the names, but some have appeared in letters to Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking for consideration of an anti-abortion amendment to the legislation.

In a statement released by the congressman’s office Tuesday afternoon, Stupak said: “I have had some serious conversations over the past few days with the White House and House leadership and I will continue to make every attempt to resolve the issue of public funding for abortion. However, there is no agreement and I will oppose bringing the bill to the floor until an amendment can be offered or language agreed to that will prevent public funding for abortion.”

Stupak is in Michigan this week, following the death of his mother-in-law over the weekend, a development that could complicate negotiations. But his press secretary, Michelle Begnoche, says he is “still keeping an eye on things” and “having conversations” from Michigan.

Currently, a federal law known as the Hyde Amendment already prevents the federal funding of abortion. In the drafting of health reform legislation, members of Congress worked to keep the reform “abortion neutral.”

In what is known as the Capps Amendment, named for its author, Rep. Lois Capps (D) of California, the reform would allow private healthcare plans included in a new insurance marketplace to cover abortion, as long as the funds were segregated. In other words, an individual’s private funds would be used for abortion coverage, not federal monies.

Abortion opponents call the Capps provision meaningless. In an opinion piece in USA Today published Nov. 2, Stupak says it departs from the Hyde Amendment in “important and troubling ways.” For example, he says, individuals who receive “affordability credits to purchase health insurance would have the option of purchasing a plan with public money that covers abortion.”

Advocates of abortion rights argue that the Capps Amendment’s provision that separates public from private funds succeeds in keeping the legislation “abortion neutral.” Keeping funds separate is a technique already used by the government, for example, in grants to faith-based institutions. In another example, federal Medicaid funds and state matching funds may not be used for abortion, but states have the option of providing supplemental abortion coverage.

“The fundamental issue here is, we are trying to make sure abortion coverage that women presently have is not lost,” says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

She says she believes Mr. Stupak’s ultimate goal is an “outright ban” on abortion services in insurance plans included in the new marketplace, or “exchange.” Currently, about 85 percent of private insurance plans cover abortion, NARAL says.

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