WASHINGTON — When President Obama signed an executive order in March to forbid taxpayer funding of abortions, anti-abortion groups pressed instead for an explicit prohibition of federal funding of abortion in the new health bill. The executive order satisfied the concerns of — and won the votes of — Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and other pro-life Democrats, but not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which argued that a comprehensive ban was needed.
Four months later, the USCCB and pro-life groups continue to dispute Stupak’s judgment, but now they have hard evidence to strengthen their case.
This week, the Department of Health and Human Services was forced to backtrack after the National Right to Life Committee reported that more than $160 million in federal funding would go to state high-risk insurance pools in Pennsylvania and New Mexico that included abortion services.
After the National Right to Life Committee issued its report on Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services posted a statement rejecting the charge. On Wednesday, the HHS released a second statement promising to communicate to state agencies that federal funds for patients with “pre-existing” conditions “will not” be used for abortion services.
By late Thursday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said HHS would act to exclude abortion from the services covered in the state-based high-risk insurance pools created through the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). “We welcome this new policy,” said Cardinal DiNardo, “while continuing to be gravely concerned that it was not issued until after some states had announced that pro-abortion health plans were approved and had begun to enroll patients.”
“This situation illustrates once again the need for Congress to enact legislation clearly stating once and for all that funds appropriated by PPACA will not pay for abortions or for insurance coverage that includes abortion,” he said.
“The issue of government involvement in the taking of innocent human life should not remain subject to the changeable discretion of executive officials or depend on the continued vigilance of pro-life advocates,” the cardinal continued.
Doug Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee noted that after HHS was pressed to respond to pro-life concerns, its public stance quickly shifted.
Late July 13, HHS spokeswoman Jenny Backus took issue with reports suggesting that the executive order already banned the use of federal funds for abortion services:
“Under the Affordable Care Act and the president’s related executive order, federal funds made available to states for the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan may not be used to fund abortion. We will reiterate this policy in guidance to those running the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan at both the state and federal levels.”
The following day, Backus issued a second statement. This time, she did not repeat the assertion that “federal funds … may not be used to fund abortion.” Instead, she promised that “abortions will not be covered in the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP).”
“The HHS shifted its ground in those 48 hours,” said Johnson. “But there is no evidence that they intended to do anything about it until it became a matter of controversy.”
When asked to comment for this story, the White House referred this reporter to Backus. She responded to an e-mail request for comment by sending a link to the HHS statement.
This first skirmish over abortion funding for programs covered under the new health bill underscores the need for careful scrutiny, Johnson and other pro-life lobbyists contend.
“We really need a comprehensive approach like the Stupak amendment,” said Johnson. “The health-care bill includes 10 different provisions dealing with abortion policy. We will have to look at each and every program and administrative decision.”
Johnson’s argument was echoed by Congressman John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House minority leader. Boehner called the use of federal funds for abortion services “unconscionable” in a statement issued the same day the National Right to Life Committee released its report.
Boehner said that in the months following the passage of the health-care bill, he had contacted the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House to review their efforts to monitor compliance with the executive order.
In a May 13 letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Boehner asked if the “department has provided guidance to the states on how to implement the president’s executive order on abortion funding” and “if the new federal high-risk pools would exclude abortion.”
Boehner said he asked the president last month, during a meeting at the White House, for a “progress report on the implementation of his executive order, which purports to ban taxpayer-funding of abortions.” Boehner said the president “provided no information.”
Stupak, however, questioned the motivations of the Obama administration’s critics, accusing some pro-life groups of “politicizing life issues in an effort to undermine health-care reform.”
“The president’s executive order makes clear that federal funds may not be used for abortion under the Affordable Care Act — including the pre-existing condition insurance pools currently being implemented in Pennsylvania and states across the country,” said the statement released by Stupak’s office.
“In accordance with the executive order, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has directed states that federal funds provided under health-care reform may not be used to fund abortion,” the statement continued. “HHS has reiterated this policy in response to the current accusations from the National Right to Life Committee.”
Stupak suggested that some anti-abortion critics had adopted an overly narrow perspective on pro-life concerns: “We need to take a whole life approach to health care which looks out for those who are out of the womb as well as those in the womb.”
Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who spearheaded groundbreaking pro-life legislation, rejected Stupak’s suggestion that anti-abortion groups should back off.
“We should not be at all surprised by this report. President Obama and so-called pro-life Democrats have tried for months to veil the abortion funding in the health-care bill with a meaningless executive order,” said Santorum.
When Obama announced his plan in March to sign an executive order banning the federal funding of abortion, Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, shrugged off the measure as a “symbolic gesture … to anti-choice Congressman Bart Stupak.” Yet some holdouts took the president at his word and signed on to the legislation.
Have the events of this week convinced any defenders of the executive order that a comprehensive ban is now required? Sister Carol Keehan, who crossed swords with the USCCB in the final week of the legislative battle over health reform and endorsed the bill, was asked to comment on this breaking story. But she, too, referred this reporter to the HHS statement.
The status quo leaves Doug Johnson with just one strong conviction: “We have to stay alert until Congress comes back and fixes this messed-up law.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Washington.