updated 11/20/2004 9:22:28 PM ET 2004-11-21T02:22:28

Congress plans to make it a little easier for hospitals, insurers and other to refuse to provide or cover abortions.

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A provision in a $388 billion spending bill passed by the House on Saturday and awaiting Senate action would block any of the measure’s money from going to federal, state or local agencies that act against health care providers and insurers because they don’t provide abortions, make abortion referrals or cover them.

“This policy simply states that health care entities should not be forced to provide elective abortions, a practice to which a majority of health care providers object and which they will not perform as a matter of conscience,” said Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla., a doctor who sponsored the language.

Weldon said his measure was simply a refinement of decades-old restrictions against federal aid for most abortions. “This provision is meant to protect health care entities from discrimination because they choose not to provide abortion services,” he said.

But Democrats complained that the provision was slipped into the voluminous year-end spending bill without debate or discussion in the Senate or the House.

“Now any business entity can decide to tell doctors working for it they can’t give information to women about their right to choose,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Many clinics and other providers, in exchange for federal funds, are required to at least tell pregnant women who do not wish to have a child that abortion is among their options. Weldon’s language would make it more difficult to enforce that, opponents said.

“The Weldon amendment is essentially a domestic gag rule, restricting access to abortion counseling, referral and information,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “Health care companies should not be able to prevent doctors from giving medically necessary information.”

Boxer said she has been promised a vote in next year’s Senate to repeal the provision. But House Democrats conceded earlier this year that they lacked the votes to stop Republicans from approving the measure, and likely would not have votes to strip the measure next year either.

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