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Abortion language is latest health reform hurdle

A Senate compromise toughening abortion restrictions is criticized by activists on both sides, prolonging the controversy as Democrats try to finish President Obama's health care overhaul.
Health Care Overhaul
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., speaks with reporters Saturday after announcing he will support the health care bill before the Senate. His support, however, reignited a debate over abortion funding.Harry Hamburg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Senate compromise toughening abortion restrictions drew criticism from activists on both sides of the issue Saturday, prolonging rather than settling the controversy as Democrats try to complete work on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Critics included Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, who said the compromise is "light years removed" from the restrictions in the House bill and creates a series of new problems. Johnson warned that the new Senate language would not pass in the House, where anti-abortion Democrats control a crucial bloc of votes.

On the other side of the divide, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the deal "unacceptable" and said it was "outrageous" that senators would accept it. It would create too many hurdles for women seeking coverage of a legal medical procedure, she complained.

The compromise tries to maintain a strict separation between taxpayer funds and private premiums that would pay for abortion coverage. It would also allow states to restrict coverage for abortion in new insurance marketplaces.

The Senate language reignited the debate in the House.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., an abortion rights leader, said she was "disappointed that women's access to full reproductive health care is again paying the price," but called the Senate's approach an improvement over the action in the House.

The author of the House-passed abortion limitations, Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, said the Senate abortion language is "not acceptable." It amounts to "a dramatic shift in federal policy that would allow the federal government to subsidize insurance policies with abortion coverage," he said. But Stupak added that he would keep working to find a solution that allows him to ultimately vote for the health care bill.

Federal law currently bars the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

Reid brokered deal
The Senate compromise was reached after hours of intense negotiation between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and key senators on both sides of the issue.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who opposes abortion, had threatened to withhold a critical 60th vote for the bill unless restrictions on abortion funding were tightened. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., represented supporters of abortion rights, who wanted to preserve coverage already available.

Nelson said Saturday that the Senate bill essentially uses different means to achieve the same goals as the House bill, which included tight limits on abortion funding praised by U.S. Catholic bishops.

The health care bill would create a new stream of government subsidies to help people buy health insurance, largely through private plans. The subsidies would be available to those buying coverage through a new insurance supermarket called an exchange. Since abortion is a legal medical procedure now covered by many insurers, activists on both sides mobilized to try to shape the legislation.

The House bill includes Stupak's amendment, which bars plans operating in the exchange from paying for most abortions. The only exceptions would be those currently allowed by federal law. Women wanting coverage for abortion would have to purchase a separate policy.

Reid's bill sets up a mechanism to segregate funds used to pay for abortions from federal subsidy dollars.

Coverage not required
No health plan would be required to offer coverage for the procedure. In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.

Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange, after but passing specific legislation to that effect. The only exceptions would be those allowed under current federal law.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has been waging an all-out battle to derail the Democratic bill, said Reid's language "throws the unborn under the bus."

Keenan, the abortion rights advocate, said requiring women to pay separately for abortion coverage would create a new barrier. "It is inexplicable that a bill seeking to expand health coverage for Americans would impose such great administrative burdens on women who purchase abortion coverage and plans that offer it," she said.