WASHINGTON — As congressional committees worked to prepare a unified health-care reform bill to Congress, the issue of abortion still presented a sticking point.
Legislation is expected soon that combines aspects of the health-care overhaul bills approved by three separate House committees in July. Those bills were generally similar, but included some differences, drawing sharp criticism from pro-life advocates.
An ominous sign took place Sept. 30, when the Senate Finance Committee rejected amendments by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would have explicitly prohibited federal funding and coverage of abortions and prevented discrimination against any individual or entity who refused to provide, pay for, provide coverage of or refer for abortions.
“We are expecting that the House bill made up from the three committees’ [bills] will be bad on abortion,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of Family Research Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council.
Pro-life advocates and members of Congress have been concerned that the House bills will offer federal funding for abortions through both the so-called public insurance option and through tax-payer subsidized premiums of private insurance plans offered in a new health insurance marketplace.
The Senate Finance Committee rejected two amendments Sept. 29 that would have added features of a public option — similar to Medicare — to the most moderate version of health-care reform. The government insurance component is included in all other major reform bills under consideration in Congress.
The impending House legislation led pro-life members of Congress to call for Democratic leaders to allow the entire chamber to vote on an amendment to bar all federal funding for abortion under the reform. Separate letters from 31 House Democrats and more than 150 House Republicans to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 28 asked her to allow the full chamber to vote on amendments defunding abortion. One such amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., was defeated by one vote in committee in July.
“These provisions in these bills would represent a break from long-standing federal policy regarding federal funding for abortion,” said Doug Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, about provisions of the House bills that would circumvent a 33-year-old ban on the use of federal taxpayer money to pay for elective abortions.
The federal funding ban extends to federal employee insurance policies, none of which can cover elective abortions.
Abortion supporters countered that they have sought compromise on the issue and highlighted adoption of an amendment by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., that would allow the nearly 50% of women with private insurance that covers abortion to maintain coverage if they switch to the public option or a plan in the new insurance marketplace. The amendment specified that insurers pay for abortions solely through the beneficiaries’ premiums, while taxpayers would only fund their other coverage.
“The only funds that may be used to pay for other abortion services are from private funds generated by the policyholders’ premiums, whether the policyholder is covered by a private plan or the public option,” Capps wrote in a September description of her amendment.
But pro-life advocates dismiss the distinction as an accounting trick to mask the highly unpopular reality of taxpayer-funded elective abortions.
The Capps amendment also sought to address concerns that health-care workers could face pressures to participate in medical procedures that they view as immoral. Democratic leaders said the amendment would apply existing federal conscience protections to the new health-care programs.
But such statements have done little to reassure some Catholic medical professionals.
John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, said current federal conscience protections are an uncoordinated patchwork and narrowly focused.
“Given the increasing power and control that these bills would give to the federal government, [the conscience protections] well could prove completely inadequate,” Brehany said.
One area where pro-life advocates hope to see progress is on provisions that had raised concerns about a government role in discouraging expensive late-life care. Some pro-life advocates expect the House leadership to drop provisions that would have required end-of-life counseling after critics roused concerns among seniors by labeling these and other provisions as “death panels.” Pro-life advocates fear such counseling could easily go awry to encourage seriously ill seniors to give up expensive treatments that might save or prolong their lives.
“When the inevitable price pressures come, then it will be the government in charge and having the primary responsibility of cutting cost. That’s wrong and a recipe for disaster,” Brehany said.
At least some of the opposition to the end-of-life counseling stemmed from its origination from Compassion & Choices, a euthanasia-advocacy organization formerly known as the Hemlock Society USA.
Another area of concern for Christian groups is a provision expected in the unified House bill that would extend certain federal tax benefits of private insurance for heterosexual married couples to same-sex domestic partners. Based on language in the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act of 2009, sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., the provision would give a homosexual partner the same tax protection that the law now limits to spouses and dependents.
“There are reasons that the federal government recognizes marriage between one man and one woman and rewards it; that’s the benefits that it has brought to society,” McClusky said. “When you minimize those rewards, you are minimizing marriage and ultimately minimizing the positive effects that marriage could have on society.”
Rich Daly writes