Abortion wars intensify over healthcare reform

Debate is raging over whether Congress is expanding abortion access at taxpayer expense. It threatens to consume health reform efforts this fall.

Brandon Kruse/The Palm Beach Post/AP
The town hall meetings held during Congress's August recess, such as this one in Boynton Beach, Fla., Aug. 19, have been marked by acrimony and concerns about health reform legislation. So far, abortion access has not been the main flash point at these events, but that debate is starting to heat up and could yet threaten reform measures.

Efforts to reform the healthcare system have added new spark to America’s long-running abortion debate.

Anti-abortion groups are posting videos and running ads saying that health-reform legislation in Congress would mandate federal funding of abortions. Pro-abortion rights groups – and President Obama – say that’s false. Two independent truth-squad groups, Factcheck.org and Politifact.org, also call the claim false, but Politifact acknowledges that the issue of federal subsidies for abortion is a more difficult question.

Thus is launched the latest round in the abortion wars – one that threatens to consume the reform effort this fall.

“The abortion issue is a very serious one for Christian conservatives and a potential deal breaker for healthcare reform,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, in Ohio. “It is much more serious potentially than the ‘death panel’ claims if it involves actually paying for abortions.”

Efforts to stay 'abortion neutral'

In the drafting of health reform legislation, some members of Congress have worked to keep it “abortion neutral” – that is, no more permissive or restrictive than current law on the use of federal dollars for abortion. Currently, under the 1976 Hyde Amendment, federal funding for abortion is barred in the Medicaid system, which provides health coverage for low-income Americans. Exceptions are made for rape, incest, and danger to the life of the pregnant woman. Some states use their own funds to cover Medicaid abortions.

In late July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a compromise that sought to address the concerns of both abortion opponents and supporters. It would allow the so-called “public option” – a proposed new government-run insurance plan – to cover abortion, but without using federal funds. Dollars could be taken from the premiums of beneficiaries for that purpose. In addition, private plans that are included in a proposed new insurance marketplace could also offer abortion coverage, but would bar the use of federal subsidies.

A meaningless compromise?

Abortion opponents call the compromise meaningless and say that federal subsidies given to those currently uninsured to help them afford insurance would mean that, in effect, the government is supporting abortion.

When Obama reached out to the religious left on healthcare this week, that sparked a reaction from the religious right – and impassioned rhetoric.

In a YouTube video, a coalition of anti-abortion groups called Stop the Abortion Mandate declares that “all of the ground gained by the prolife movement is in danger of being lost.”

“This bill would be the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade,” Carmen Pate, host of the "Point of View" radio talk show, says in the video. She is referring to the US Supreme Court precedent that legalized abortion in 1973.

Ambiguity reigns, so far

For now, none of the health care legislation under way in the House and Senate specifically states what medical services would or would not be covered under the public option. Advisory panels are to make recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services, with the final call made by the department’s secretary.

But abortion foes want language that expressly forbids use of federal dollars for abortion. Anti-abortion Democrats are included in that mix, and have tried and failed to amend House legislation to bar the use of federal funds “to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion.”

Advocates of abortion rights are working to make sure their supporters understand the stakes, and that women don’t lose any of the access to abortion they currently have – including the coverage private insurers provide for abortion.

“To the extent the other side is revving itself up and making more and more of a political issue out of this, the less public support they’ll have,” says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. The effort to restrict access to abortion via healthcare reform “flies in the face of good policy, good healthcare, and public opinion.”


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