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Health Care Reform Splits Democrats on Abortion

Pro-life Democrats disagree over whether bills include federal funding for abortion.

Pro-life Democrats are at odds with their party's leaders, saying abortions will be publicly funded under health care reforms as current legislation stands.

Speaking at a roundtable this week, Senator Bob Casey (D-Penn.) said last week that there are more changes to be made to the bill before he will be confident federal money won't fund abortion. Casey, a pro-life Catholic, was criticized by church leaders earlier this year for voting to allow federal funding for overseas clinics that provide abortions by overturning the Mexico City policy.

"Just to clarify for my own part, I do think we need some more work done on parts of the bill, but we're doing that right now," Casey told reporters October 21.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) followed Casey by saying no one will have to make a choice between voting for health care reform and ensuring abortion isn't federally funded because Democrats have ensured that abortion services will not receive public money.

"I believe there are those who want to take down the bill who will say that is not the case," Stabenow said. "But we have gone to great lengths to make sure this is absolutely neutral."

Likewise, President Barack Obama has promised that under his plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.

But Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, says that assertion isn't true. No matter which version of the health care bill you look at, each one contains strong possibilities for federal abortion funding and some even mandate it, she told Christianity Today.

"I don't know how people can look with a straight face and say there is no federal funding for abortion," she says.

A current law called the Hyde amendment bars most federal funding for abortion, applying those restrictions to Medicaid.

Democrats continue to cite the Hyde Amendment when they talk about prohibitions on federally funded abortions. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), told reporters Wednesday that to say the plan would subsidize abortions is the same as saying the government is subsidizing abortions for those who travel on highways to abortion clinics.

"If the government subsidizes your travel by funding the highway system or Amtrak, and you use those services to get abortion services, that is really not what we're considering government funding of abortions," he said.

Some versions of health care reform include an amendment proposed by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), which was touted as a compromise. It would allow insurance companies that participate in the publicly run insurance exchange to provide abortions, but individuals would have to use their own premiums to pay for abortions.

But critics say that the amendment still doesn't keep federal money separate from private money. Premiums paid by individuals on a public plan would go into a fund along with "affordability credits" that would be given to low-income individuals to pay for abortions, according to separate reports by the Family Research Council and the Associated Press.

To ensure that doesn't happen, the heath care reform needs to include protections identical to those governing Medicaid plans, Day says. For years, the Hyde Amendment has kept Health and Human Services funds away from abortion services, which means that federal employees, Peace Corps volunteers, and some others must pay for abortions with their own funds. Some Democrats say the Hyde Amendment would already apply to the new health care program without expressly adding it to the bill, but Day disagrees.

"It's all federal money," Day said. "In this case, it wouldn't be separate because it would all be coming out of the U.S. Treasury."

On the House side, a version of the bill in the Ways and Means Committee does not contain the Capps amendment. Day says that because the language of the bill doesn't address abortion funding at all, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius could still mandate abortion coverage once it becomes law.

Party leaders will not bring to the floor legislation sponsored by pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan that would expressly ban federal funding for abortion.

"If it's true that the president and the leadership believe there isn't any funding for abortions, they should have no problem with this language," Day said. "I think if we had taken care of this weeks ago, we would have 20 or 30 more votes for the health care plan and have a better chance of passing it."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee initially passed Stupak's amendment in July, but it failed by one vote after a re-vote.

Stupak says that it is impossible to clearly segregate funds in a way that would keep abortion from being federally subsidized."Once you get the affordability credits (subsidies) in there, that's public funding of abortion. We're not going there," Stupak told the Associated Press. "How do you get past the affordability credits is really the issue. And we can't."

On Thursday, Stupak met with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee but failed to come to an agreement on abortion language.

"We have a difference of opinion at the moment we cannot bridge," Waxman told the AP. "We have done everything we can to ensure that there will be no federal funds for abortion services."

In late September, 25 Democrats and 158 Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asking her to allow them to vote on the amendment.

One of those legislators was Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who says he has "every confidence" that it would pass if brought to the House floor. Like Day, he believes that neither the Hyde or Capps amendments would block federal funds from abortions. The Hyde Amendment applies only to plans for Medicaid patients, while the Capps amendment would make abortion available through a government-sponsored insurance exchange, he told CT.

"They create this accounting scenario, but ultimately it's a government-run insurance plan," Pence said.

Democrats are committed to retaining current prohibitions against federal abortion funding, according to Rep. Stabenow. She said they are adding a change to the bill, however: one that would make maternity care a basic part of any health insurance plan.

"We all have a commitment that this debate is not about changing federal policy as it relates to abortion services," Stabenow said. "I can tell you that what we are trying to get in is prenatal and maternity care."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today follows political developments on the politics blog.

CT's c care coverage can be found in our science & health section, including:

The Health Care Debate, Early Church Style | Early Christians focused on of the sacredness of individuals, not demons, says historian Gary Ferngren. (August 26, 2009)
We Need Health-Care Reform | And the real question is who gets to decide who gets attention. (July 22, 2009)

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