WASHINGTON – Most pro-life groups roundly criticized pro-life Democrats for switching to support passage of a health-care bill that may provide taxpayer support for elective abortions.

Final passage of the massive health-care overhaul, 219-212, came down to the support of a handful of pro-life Democrats, who had long opposed it over concerns that it would fund elective abortions. Their concerns were met, they said, by President Obama promising an executive order to prohibit the use of public funds for abortion.

“No one ever thought President Obama would sign an executive order like this,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life.

However, every other leading pro-life group rejected the executive order because it would not change the underlying legislation and would not prevent courts from requiring the new federal program to provide abortion coverage as a basic health-care benefit.

“Unfortunately, this proposal does not begin to address the problem, which arises from decades of federal appellate rulings that apply the principles of Roe v. Wade to federal health legislation,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “According to these rulings, such health legislation creates a statutory requirement for abortion funding, unless Congress clearly forbids such funding.”

The historic precedent for the current legislation that pro-life groups cite is the requirement by federal courts that Medicaid fund abortions as a basic health requirement after abortion was legalized in 1973. Those court decisions resulted in Medicaid funding over 300,000 abortions annually until the so-called Hyde Amendment was enacted in 1976 and statutorily barred federal taxpayer funding for elective abortions until the present.

“The statutory mandate construed by the courts would override any executive order or regulation,” Doerflinger noted.

Day said her group was still analyzing the executive order banning federal taxpayer funding for elective abortions but was “hopeful” that it would survive court challenges by abortion advocates.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who led a group of pro-life Democrats, hailed the agreement as a victory for pro-life advocates.

“It is the Democrats who have stood up for the principle of no public funding for abortions,” said Stupak, in a brief House floor speech after the vote.

Stupak dismissed as “ridiculous” a Republican effort to send the bill back to the committee level explicitly to address the lack of a provision barring federal funds for abortion that was long advocated by Stupak.

Executive Order Can’t Amend Bill

Most pro-life groups said their analysis of the use of an executive order was clear enough to condemn the last-minute deal the president struck with Stupak.

“This deal to pass the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade is a tragedy for America,” said Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life Action. “We believe that Mr. Stupak’s choice to succumb to the intense pressure of the last week has resulted in his endorsement of a charade that does not even begin to address the anti-life provisions in this legislation.”

The National Right to Life Committee issued a statement that said the executive order promised by President Obama was “issued for political effect.”

“The president cannot amend a bill by issuing an order, and the federal courts will enforce what the law says,” said the statement.

The Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund condemned the bill for its abortion provisions and Stupak, in particular, for his last-minute and critical support of it. The group was planning to honor Stupak for leading pro-life efforts in the health-care battle at its annual Campaign for Life Gala this week but dropped that recognition after his move to support the bill.

“Let me be clear: Any representative, including Rep. Stupak, who votes for this health-care bill, can no longer call themselves ‘pro-life,’” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the fund.

She promised that her group would work to defeat members of Congress who supported the health-care overhaul.

The Stupak deal also drew objections by pro-abortion groups because it may restrict federal funding of abortions in the short term, similar to the legislative ban enacted by the Hyde Amendment.

“Today’s action is a stark reminder of why we must repeal this unfair and insulting policy,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a written statement.

The abortion-funding concern was also on the minds of thousands of opponents of the health-care overhaul who gathered outside of the Capitol building as the House of Representatives voted.

The abortion-funding language “goes against 30 years of tradition,” said Matt Rixon, who drove from Tampa, Fla., to Washington with his family to voice opposition to the bill. “We don’t want our tax dollars to fund abortion.”

Even some among a smaller number of health-bill supporters gathered outside the Capitol building voiced concerns that taxpayer money may be used to fund elective abortions.

“I can see where people would have a problem paying for controversial things like that,” said Joe Crosby, a Washington, D.C., resident, who described himself as pro-choice.

President Obama was expected to sign the measure into law within a couple days of the House vote. The House also approved a so-called reconciliation measure to change some provisions of the bill unrelated to abortion and sent it to the Senate where it is also expected to face a contentious vote.

Rich Daly writes from Washington, D.C.