By Paula Ruddy
The U.S. Senate is on the verge of a vote, maybe today, Tuesday, December 8, on the use of federal funds to pay for abortion procedures under the proposed insurance provisions of the health reform package on the table
Federal funds have not been permitted to be used for abortion procedures since 1976. What is the question now? Archbishop John C. Nienstedt is quoted by MPR news reporters Tom Crann and Madeleine Baran on December 3 as saying that, “The question is, What kind of health care do we want as a nation? And any health care program that would include the killing of the unborn is unacceptable.”
Does Archbishop Nienstedt mean that there should be no health care reform at all so long as abortion is legal within the health care system?
To make abortion illegal, Roe v.Wade would have to be overturned and states would have to enact criminal laws prohibiting it. Is that what the Archbishop is advocating?
He should be more explicit; general talk about “killing the unborn” is not helpful.
Some may not know, or have forgotten, the legal history. After Roe v. Wade (1973) held it unconstitutional for a state to criminalize abortion or to restrict it unless some conditions are met, the question arose whether federal funds could be used for programs that provided abortion. In 1976, Senator Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, sponsored a bill that prohibited the use of federal funds, Congress passed it, and it has been in effect with various amendments ever since. Private insurance companies can cover abortion and states can use their own funds to cover Medicaid recipients’ abortion, but federal funds cannot be used. In 1980, the Supreme Court held restriction of funds to be constitutional in Harris v. McRae. Women are free to have abortions but they are not constitutionally entitled to funding for them. The current law makes exceptions for abortions following rape and incest, as well as in life-endangering circumstances.
Now come the health care reform bills. The House version was passed on November 7 by a vote of 240 to 194 with an amendment by Bart Stupak, Democrat from Michigan, and Joe Pitts, Republican from Pennsylvania, essentially including the Hyde amendment restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion in the provisions for insurance coverage. Federal funds may not be used except for procedures following rape, incest, and life endangerment to the mother. People with insurance from their employers are not affected. One area that is in question is whether “affordability credits,” federal subsidies offered under the bill to help income qualified people buy coverag,, could be used to cover abortions. The Stupak-Pitts language prohibits that. If people want abortion coverage, they will have to purchase with their own money a “rider” to the insurance offered in the insurance exchange. The Senate version of the bill is being debated now. Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat from Nebraska, has introduced an amendment with Stupak/Pitts language, and that is the vote we are waiting for now.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House version of the bill “is a modest and reasonable measure.” In their fact sheet accompanying their letter to the Senate asking for comparable language in the Senate bill, the bishops ask: “Is the Stupak amendment broader than the Hyde Amendment that has prevented federal funding of abortion for decades?” They answer No. The upshot is that if the US Catholic Bishops are telling the truth, the situation with regard to abortion services provided in the health care system will be exactly as it is now.
Opponents of the Stupak-Pitts amendment argue that it will have more restrictive effects on abortion than the current version of the Hyde Amendment. They argue that insurance riders will be expensive for the very people who need the “affordability credits” and that insurance companies will find it cost ineffective to offer riders.
Although the amendment will make it harder for a woman with low income to obtain an abortion, the legislation is certainly not going to prevent a person who can pay for abortion or afford insurance for it from obtaining either. I don’t know how the U.S. bishops rationalize their intense campaign to make it harder for women of low income to get an abortion. How they could more effectively spend their time and money on reaching the hearts and minds of women who need help is a question for another day.
If anyone has a better handle on this situation, please chime in with additions and corrections.