Abortion Vote Divides Democrats on Health Care

Senate to debate amendment restricting abortion coverage.

ByABC News
December 7, 2009, 11:05 AM

Dec. 7, 2009— -- With the momentum for health care legislation gaining pace, Senators will face one of their biggest hurdles, a proposal to block federally subsidized health insurance plans from covering abortion.

The bipartisan amendment in the health care bill, proposed today by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska with eight Republicans and Democratic Sen. Robert Casey from Pennsylvania, is similar to a measure already passed in the House health care legislation. It would prohibit private insurers that get federal money from providing abortion and would also bar recipients of federal affordability tax credits from purchasing a policy that covers abortion.

The amendment is expected to come to a vote on Tuesday.

The House amendment, crafted by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., took similar steps by not only cutting federal funding for abortion-related services, but also limiting access to abortions for people who receive federal subsidies and those who purchase insurance through a health insurance exchange, a marketplace where people would be able to shop for and compare insurance plans.

The current language in the Senate health care bill restricts the use of public funds for abortion services. But private insurance plans that are offered in the insurance exchange can cover abortion if funds for the procedure are used only from premiums paid by beneficiaries.

Nelson and several Republicans want to take the language on abortion further and restrict coverage strictly to cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger.

"As written, the Senate health care bill allows taxpayer dollars, directly and indirectly, to pay for insurance plans that cover abortion," Nelson said in a statement. "For more than 30 years, taxpayers' money hasn't been used for abortions, a standard that has the broad support of the American people. This rule now applies to federal health programs covering veterans, federal employees, Native Americans, active duty service members and others, and should extend to those covered by any new health care bill."

Democrats are deeply divided over the abortion language in the bill. Casey today expressed optimism that his party members will come to a consensus on the issue, even as some liberal Democrats expressed outrage.

"The public option obviously is a lot more similar or akin to Medicaid, a government program that has public money," Casey said in an interview with MSNBC today. "It is more difficult -- and this is where the conflict arises -- in the exchange, something we've never had to deal with before. But I believe that the intent of a lot of members of the Senate on the pro-choice and pro-life side is to prevent public dollars, taxpayer dollars from paying for abortion."

Liberal Democrats say such a move must be defeated because it would bar even those procedures that would be paid for by the consumers themselves.

"Let's be clear, the bill as it stands does continue the current law. What this amendment does, is it goes further. You can't use private money in the private market and, frankly, I think that goes too far," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said on CBS' "The Early Show" today.

"I think the majority of the Senate will oppose this amendment and leave the current law in place: no federal money for abortion services," McCaskill added.

Even though his forthcoming proposal has outraged some liberal Democrats such as McCaskill, Nelson has threatened to reject the final bill if it is not included, putting an all-important 60-vote count in jeopardy.

"At the end of the day we need Senator Nelson's vote. We still don't have a promise of a vote from the Republican side, so we would need his vote," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Friday.

The issue of abortion in the Senate has sparked nationwide debate. Anti-abortion groups say they will vigorously oppose the legislation if the abortion amendment does not pass.

"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.

"Our position is that where the Senate bill started was already a compromise for pro-choice supporters in this country," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "And that compromise should be satisfactory to any anti-choice senators. And what they are trying to do is use this health care debate, which is so important to uninsured Americans and others, to advance their anti choice agenda, and that's wrong."