He might have termed it a historic vote when the House of Representatives passed the healthcare reform bill. But President Obama has begun to voice his concerns over abortion restrictions introduced in the final stages and wants the Congress to effect necessary revisions.
There's already a federal law in place that bans federally funded programs like Medicaid from covering abortion, except in the case of rape or incest, or if the mother's life is endangered.
Now the House bill goes further. It not only bans the use of federal money to buy insurance plans with abortion coverage, it bars insurers that receives federal subsidies from offering these policies to anyone — even to women who do not use federal subsidies. That's a signficant stretch beyond the Hyde restrictions.
The House-passed restrictions were the price Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had to pay to get a health care bill passed, on a narrow 220-215 vote. But it's prompted an angry backlash from liberals at the core of her party, and some are now threatening to vote against a final bill if the curbs stay in.
Abortion rights supporters in the House were circulating a letter to Pelosi, threatening to vote against a final bill that restricts access to abortion coverage. At least 40 lawmakers had signed by early Monday.
"I, along with the other pro-choice members in the House, intend to push very hard to ensure that language is not included in the final conference product," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
"It is extremely unfortunate that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and antichoice opponents were able to hijack the healthcare reform bill in their dedicated attempt to ban all legal abortion in the United States," Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Saturday night. "We will work with [pro-abortion rights] members to rectify this travesty."
Obama sounded more conciliatory. He said in an interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News:
You know, I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill. And we're not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions. And I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test—that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices, because one of the pledges I made in that same speech was to say that if you're happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, that it's not going to change. So, you know, this is going to be a complex set of negotiations . . . . I think that there are strong feelings on both sides. And what that tells me is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we're not changing the status quo. And that's the goal.
It may not be realistic to expect the Senate to pull back on the abortion issue: the Senate Democrats rule by a far thinner margin than the House and will struggle mightily to keep the more conservative "Blue Dog" members in line.
Fearing more complications from liberals over abortion, Obama supporters are appealing to them not to upset the apple cart.
The practical impact of this amendment will be limited, they argue. Most women with private insurance who obtain abortions don't claim coverage anyway, perhaps out of privacy concerns. The Hyde amendment means most poorer women on Medicaid can't claim coverage either.
In the more than 30 years since the Hyde Amendment was passed, 17 states have stepped in to cover the cost of abortion coverage under Medicaid on their own. That, at least, contains the damage caused by this kind of mischief in Washington, it is claimed.
The Senate health committee bill is largely silent on abortion, a stance that abortion opponents interpret as permitting coverage by private insurance plans that would receive federal subsidies.
The Senate Finance Committee bill attempts to craft a compromise, as the House unsuccessfully tried to do before this weekend's vote tightened restrictions.
The Finance plan would require insurance carriers to separate federal subsidy moneys from any funds used to provide abortions, and it would prohibit abortion coverage from being included in a minimum benefits package. It would require that state and regional insurance markets offer one plan that covers abortion, and one plan that does not.
Who will win ultimately? One has to wait and see.