WASHINGTON — In a move that may jeopardize passage of the health-care overhaul, the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment that would have ensured no taxpayer funds are used to fund elective abortions.

Although some believe that Congress will ultimately include an abortion-funding ban, the Senate voted 54-45 on Dec. 8 to table an amendment sponsored by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., that would provide such a funding ban.

“For more than three decades, taxpayers’ money hasn’t been used for abortions, and it shouldn’t under any new health-reform legislation,” Nelson said. “We are seeking to just apply the same standards on abortion to the Senate health-care bill that already exist for many federal health programs.”

Opponents of the amendment, including most Democrats in the chamber, said it was unnecessary because the health-care overhaul bill already requires that insurers in a new government “marketplace” who cover abortion segregate any federal funding to keep from paying for the procedure. The national or state-based marketplaces would offer a range of private insurance policies that meet minimum federal coverage requirements and that the public could purchase.


The Debate Continues

That would be a change from the current federal employees’ insurance policies, which expressly bar insurance policies from offering elective abortion coverage.

Abortion opponents also point out that such a division of funds is impossible and superficial because there would be no way to know what funding was paying for what procedure once it was paid to an insurer.

Those arguments did not sway advocates of access to abortion, who viewed the proposed restriction as “radical” for isolating a procedure only used by women.

“The men who brought us this [amendment] don’t single out a procedure used by men,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Supporters of the abortion-funding ban said it would allow women to buy a separate rider to cover elective abortions. But that possibility brought further objections from abortion proponents.

The amendment “demonizes women,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. “Why don’t you go into the workplace and paint a scarlet letter on your head.”

Mikulski also compared the proposed restriction for taxpayer funding for elective abortions to requiring a rider for coverage of Viagra.

Two Republicans and two Independents joined 50 Democrats in defeating the amendment, while seven Democrats joined 38 Republicans in supporting the funding ban.


Problems for Democrats

The defeat of the bill came despite the concerted efforts of family and religious advocates. Among the most prominent supporters of the ban, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied hard for the measure and urged Catholics nationwide to contact their senators in support of the funding ban.

Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and two other bishops wrote senators on behalf of the conference on Dec. 7 to urge adoption of the funding ban. Without it, the health-care bill would allow the secretary of Health and Human Services to require abortion coverage as part of any government-run public option. In addition, the bill would create “an unprecedented mandatory ‘abortion surcharge’” in private plans bought through a new government marketplace.

The bill would “require pro-life purchasers to pay directly and explicitly for other people’s abortions,” the bishops wrote.

Without the ban, the Senate overhaul bill is less restrictive of abortion than its House-passed counterpart. House Democratic leaders allowed a last-minute vote on a nearly identical amendment to bar federal taxpayer funding of elective abortions, which was adopted. More than 40 House Democrats have vowed to oppose passage of the final bill if the taxpayer-funding ban is stripped out. Those votes, along with unified Republican opposition, would prevent passage of the health-care overhaul.

“It was pretty clear that we would not have a health-care reform bill in the House without language that reflected the 30-year history of federal law,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

Senate Democratic leaders face a similar problem because Nelson has pledged to oppose the final health-care bill if it lacks the abortion-funding ban. Without his 60th vote that Democrats need to move the bill out of the chamber, the Senate’s majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., will need to lure a Republican senator to support the bill.

At least one pro-life senator believes that the Democratic imperative to pass a health-care overhaul will result in the inclusion of an elective abortion-funding ban through closed-door negotiations on the final bill. That gamble would bet that Democratic desire to enact a sweeping health-care overhaul trumps the priorities of proponents of abortion access, who dominate the party and who have their own 40-plus block of House members vowing to oppose a bill that includes such an abortion-funding ban.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told reporters that the abortion-funding amendment vote aimed to simply provide political cover for abortion supporters, who could later claim they tried everything to keep the language out.

But some abortion opponents take Democratic leaders at their word. Reid railed against the abortion-funding ban amendment at length during a Senate floor speech before the vote, although he described himself as “pro-life.”

Said Tom McClusky, vice president of Family Research Council Action, “With what Reid said on the floor, I can’t see him” allowing the funding ban.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said the Senate bill may be moving pro-life activists to a point where they will have to actively oppose the entire bill. She called on pro-life Democratic senators, including Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, to vote against final passage of the Senate health-care bill if it continues to retain taxpayer funding for elective abortions.

“If you call yourself pro-life and genuinely care about preserving true common ground,” Dannenfelser said, “you cannot possibly vote for this bill.”

Rich Daly writes

from Washington.


Further Amendment Fights Loom

In the days and weeks following the Senate’s contentious early-December vote on abortion funding as part of the health-care overhaul, senators are expected to consider a range of amendments critical to faith and family groups. A vote on final passage of the health-care overhaul bill could come before the end of the month or sometime in January.

Burke Balch, director of the Powell Center for Medical Ethics at the National Right to Life Committee, said his group anticipates several amendments that will aim to prevent “rationing” and government barriers to the use of private money to pay for needed health care. Such access barriers are critical pro-life issues because the legislation will provide the government with extensive power to block access to medical care, even if an individual wants to use his or her own money.

One amendment supported by the National Right to Life Committee would lift a ban by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on the use of private funds to add to benefits provided under Medicare.

Another amendment will seek to keep federal regulators from banning private insurers from the planned health-insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, that the health-reform bills would establish. The Senate bill allows federal regulators to bar insurers they find have a pattern of large price increases.

“Those decisions would act as price controls,” because it would limit consumers’ choices, Balch said.

Another amendment anticipated by pro-life advocates would bar demonstration projects that could encourage health-care providers and patients receiving publicly funded care to focus on and prioritize the costs of their care over their lives. The House version of the health-care bill would require end-of-life counseling under Medicare, which critics blasted as “death panels,” that could encourage seriously ill patients to consider forgoing costly medical interventions. The differing provisions would have the same effect of undermining the value of life, Balch said.

An anticipated amendment related to the abortion fight also is expected. That amendment would strengthen “conscience protections” for health-care workers, health plans and facilities. These provisions would allow any of those people or groups to refuse to participate in or sanction a medical device or procedure that they found morally objectionable.

Tom McClusky, vice president of Family Research Council Action, said the current Senate health-care bill’s language would not protect Catholic hospitals and health plans from having to cover abortion or birth control practices that contravene Catholic teaching.

Said McClusky, “There are only weak protections in the bill.”

— Rich Daly