Nelson said that his amendment simply continues current law, in place for 30 years, that prohibits the use of federal dollars for abortions.
"Taxpayers shouldn't be required to pay for people's abortions. It's just that simple," Nelson said on the Senate floor. "All current federal health programs disallow the use of federal funds to help pay for health plans that include abortion. our amendment only continues that established federal policy."
Hatch, a co-sponsor of the bill, and other Republicans argued today that the current law contains a loophole that would make it easy for federal funds to be used toward abortion.
Several Democratic women gave impassioned speeches against the amendment. They said it goes much further than current law because it would ban coverage for abortion for people receiving federal assistance even if those people pay for the abortion coverage themselves with premiums. This so-called firewall between what public funds pay for in coverage and what premiums pay for is used elsewhere, but not for people on Medicare or federal employees.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the amendment a "harsh and unnecessary step back."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., saw the amendment as an attempt to roll back a woman's right to seek an abortion at all.
"They want to take away a woman's right to choose, even in the earliest stages of a pregnancy, even if it impacts her health, her ability to remain fertile, her ability to avoid a very serious health issue, such as a heart problem or a stroke," Boxer said during the debate. "They don't want to have an exception for women's health, no questions that's what they want."
The issue of abortion in the Senate has sparked nationwide debate. Anti-abortion groups say they will vigorously oppose the legislation.
"The key thing is that without an amendment that explicitly bans fed funding for abortion, you're going to see the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, a public-policy organization that opposes abortion on demand. "We see this bill as abortion business bailout. We don't want see the American taxpayers money going to subsidize abortion in this country."
Groups that favor abortion rights, on the other hand, say any extension of restriction beyond what is in the current Senate bill will move the federal government into a whole new area of restricting women in the private sector from getting abortion services, even if they pay for the premiums. Today, they lauded the Senate's decision to table the amendment.
"The Center for Reproductive Rights applauds the Senate for rejecting an attempt to seriously undermine women's health. The Nelson-Hatch amendment was a bill of goods sold as a mere continuation of federal law that, in reality, would in effect be a wholesale ban on abortion coverage for millions of women," Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. "That said, as the debate moves into the final stretch, it is absolutely critical that our elected officials hold the line against any further attempts to use the health reform debate to advance an anti-choice agenda."