Senate Compromise Deepens Abortion Battle

Published December 19, 2009

| AP

A Senate compromise toughening abortion restrictions drew criticism from activists on both sides of the issue Saturday, prolonging rather than settling the controversy as Democrats try and complete work on President Obama's health care overhaul.

Critics included Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, who said the compromise is "light years removed" from the restrictions in the House bill and creates a series of new problems. Johnson warned that the new Senate language would not pass in the House, where anti-abortion Democrats control a crucial bloc of votes.

An abortion rights leader in the House called the compromise far from perfect.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said she was "disappointed that women's access to full reproductive health care is again paying the price," but she allowed that the Senate language was an improvement.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., author of the House-passed abortion limitations, said the Senate abortion language is "not acceptable" because it "would allow the federal government to subsidize insurance policies with abortion coverage." He said he intends to keep working to find a solution that would allow him to ultimately vote for the health care bill.

Federal law currently bars the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

The Senate compromise was reached after hours of intense negotiation between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and key senators on both sides of the issue. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who opposes abortion, had threatened to withhold a critical 60th vote for the bill unless restrictions on abortion funding were tightened. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., represented supporters of abortion rights, who wanted to preserve coverage already available.

Nelson said Saturday that the Senate bill -- which allows states to restrict coverage of the procedure -- essentially uses different means to achieve the same goals as the House bill, which included tight limits on abortion funding praised by U.S. Catholic bishops.

The health care bill would create a new stream of government subsidies to help people buy health insurance, largely through private plans. The subsidies would be available to those buying coverage through a new insurance supermarket called an exchange. Since abortion is a legal medical procedure now covered by many insurers, activists on both sides mobilized to try to shape the legislation.

The House bill includes Stupak's amendment, which bars plans operating in the exchange from paying for most abortions. The only exceptions would be those currently allowed by federal law. Women wanting coverage for abortion would have to purchase a separate policy.

Reid's bill sets up a mechanism to segregate funds used to pay for abortions from federal subsidy dollars.

No health plan would be required to offer coverage for the procedure. In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.

Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange, after but passing specific legislation to that effect. The only exceptions would be those allowed under current federal law.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has been waging an all-out battle to derail the Democratic bill, said Reid's language "throws the unborn under the bus."

Senate Democrats, however, said it strikes a balance that would preserve restrictions on taxpayer funding for abortion without reducing the availability of private coverage for the procedure.