WASHINGTON — Pro-life groups hope new leadership by President Obama in overhauling health care will veer away from the large expansion in federal funding for abortions that bills under consideration in Congress would provide.

But one leading right-to-life organization quickly denounced a bill set to be introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., saying it contains “an array of pro-abortion mandates and federal subsidies for elective abortion” and would lead to health-care rationing for senior citizens and the terminally ill.

The “America’s Healthy Future Act” contains “provisions that would send massive federal subsidies directly to both private insurance plans and government-chartered cooperatives that pay for elective abortion,” the National Right to Life Committee said in a press release Sept. 16. In addition, the Baucus bill would contain language that would allow the government to declare abortion to be a “mandated benefit as part of a minimum benefits package” in any circumstances in which the federal Medicaid program could pay for an abortion.

Obama first offered a new health-reform approach in his Sept. 9 address to a joint session of Congress. The proposed plan sought to avoid many of the controversies that have sapped Congress’s efforts to overhaul health care.

“No federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place,” Obama said in his address.

The intent to keep taxpayer money from funding abortions through health reform was repeated in media appearances by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“The president has made it clear that  with health reform we will respect existing conscience laws and follow existing law, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake,” said an administration official Sept. 16.

The president’s promise has encouraged some pro-life groups because it appears to drop the support for federal funding of abortions provided by the leading health-care reform bills supported by the Democratic leadership in Congress.

“If he is speaking in good faith, it is wonderful news, and we will look closely at what comes out of the process,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about the president’s new plan.


Skepticism

But because Obama previously obfuscated the abortion funding provided by existing reform legislation, there’s been skepticism.

In an Aug. 19 conference call with supporters, he said it was a “fabrication” and “untrue” that the existing legislation would provide “government funding of abortions.” He made that claim despite findings to the contrary by nonpartisan observers, such as FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. FactCheck.org noted that the House reform bill would permit the “public option” insurance plan to cover all abortions and allow federal subsidies to purchase private insurance that covers all abortions.

Further doubt about Obama’s willingness to drop abortion funding from health reform has been raised by others in his administration who continue to support taxpayer-funded abortion as part of health reform. The American Prospect reported that Tina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, told a July 15 Planned Parenthood conference about the administration’s efforts to keep abortion restrictions out of health reform.

“Because they are saying different things to different audiences at the same time, we think a high degree of skepticism is warranted about these latest utterances,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, about Obama’s new approach to abortion funding.

Obama’s new tack on abortion comes as polls indicate public opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions may threaten enactment of any health-care overhaul.


Stupak Amendment

As the administration becomes more involved in the details of health-care proposals, congressional health-reform bills that include abortion funding continue to advance.

“All of the current health-care bills are unacceptable on abortion,” Doerflinger said.

Abortion opponents have made several efforts to amend the existing bills to bring the legislation in line with the federal law that bars taxpayer funding for most abortions through Medicaid or the federal employee insurance program, for instance.

One such amendment, by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., fell one vote short in the House Energy and Commerce Committee after pro-life Democrats joined Republicans in supporting it.

Stupak is pushing for the full House to vote on an amendment applying existing federal abortion restrictions on Medicaid to health reform when the bills move to the floor.

Another amendment, sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., that was adopted over the objection of pro-life members of Congress would require new health insurance marketplaces to offer at least one insurance plan that covered abortion and one that did not.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., one of the six bipartisan negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee who were tasked with trying to reach a compromise over disputed elements of the health-care reform plan, said Sept. 14 that the group wants to add similar pro-life language to the Senate version of the reform bill that’s now before the Finance Committee.

The group of negotiators, which is headed by Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, met Sept. 14.

Conrad said the meeting “considered a provision to specifically prohibit any provisions in the health-care proposal from funding abortion,” CNN reported. “He said existing law that would apply to a health-care bill prohibits federal funding of abortion, but added that the Senate negotiators want the bill to eliminate any doubt on the issue.”

However, Senate Finance Committee Democratic staff said Sept. 16 that the abortion components in the new bill generally aim to echo the intent of the Capps amendment, which requires an insurance option that pays for abortions. The committee was to consider amendments to the bill the week of Sept. 21.

Rich Daly writes

from Washington.