Catholic Bishops Oppose New Abortion Restrictions in Senate Health Bill

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the most important anti-abortion voices in the country, announced its opposition to the Senate health care bill despite additional restrictions included to segregate taxpayer money from abortion services coverage.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., won those provisions, along with several other perks for his state, before committing to support the health care bill Saturday. But the abortion compromise has drawn the ire of both sides of the debate, with pro-life and pro-choice groups condemning the new bill as inadequate.

"The Senate health reform bill should not move forward in its current form," the bishops' conference said in a written statement Saturday, adding that the legislation should be "opposed" until the conference's concerns are addressed.

The new abortion language would ensure that one plan in the so-called insurance exchange -- a network of regulated plans -- would have no abortion coverage. For others, it would require that insurance companies segregate any federal subsidies so that only private funds from customers are used to pay for abortion coverage. The plan would have companies charge a specific fee dedicated for abortion coverage. States would still be able to exclude abortion coverage from their exchanges.

But the Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed concern that individuals would not be able to "opt out" of paying abortion coverage in most of the subsidized plans.

"Instead it will require purchasers of such plans to pay a distinct fee or surcharge which is extracted solely to help pay for other people's abortions," the organization said." Further the government agency that currently manages health coverage for federal employees will promote and help subsidize multi-state health plans that include elective abortions, contrary to longstanding law governing this agency."

That was just the start of the complaints.

Americans United for Life Action cited several concerns in its analysis of the measure. Broadly, the group complained that the bill would allow insurance plans that cover abortion to receive government subsidies at all.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who helped craft tough restrictions on funding for abortion coverage on the House side, also said the Nelson compromise was "not acceptable."

On the other side, abortion rights supporters were equally displeased with the compromise measure, which is not expected to be changed in any significant way before a final vote set for Christmas Eve.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a written statement that her group "strongly opposes" the new language. She lamented the fact that additional restrictions were added even though an amendment seeking tougher language was recently rejected.

"Last week, the Senate rejected harsh restrictions on abortion coverage, and it is a sad day when women's health is traded away for one vote," she said.