Does House Healthcare Bill Fund Abortion? Depends on Whom You Ask

Abortion-rights supporters and opponents disagree over whether House healthcare bill funds abortion.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Does the House healthcare bill directly fund abortion with taxpayer money? Depends on whom you ask.

Abortion-rights groups like Planned Parenthood call the claim a "myth" that's part of a broader "right-wing campaign against healthcare reform."

But abortion-rights foes say such groups are being disingenuous and that the bill clearly authorizes federally financed abortion as part of its public healthcare option.

Even with the House adjourned for August recess, the disagreement over whether its healthcare bill funds abortion with federal dollars is growing more intense. Last night, Family Research Council Action President Tony Perkins reissued an earlier invitation to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to debate the question. Perkins insists that Obama's healthcare reform plan includes taxpayer-financed abortion.

The question revolves largely around an amendment to the House healthcare bill that was adopted by the Energy and Commerce Committee last Thursday. The amendment prohibits federal funds from explicitly subsidizing abortion in the private healthcare plans to be offered through the health insurance exchange (read it here). But it doesn't prevent "the public health insurance option from providing for or prohibiting coverage" of abortion.

That means the public healthcare option could cover abortions that the government is currently barred from funding by way of the Hyde amendment, a rider to the annual health and human services appropriations bill that keeps Medicaid from funding abortion except in rare circumstances. But Democrats say the entire healthcare bill is subject to the Hyde amendment, meaning that public funds are still barred from covering abortions, so long as the amendment continues to be reauthorized annually.

"For the last 30 years, this is the consistent common ground: We don't use public funds to provide abortion services," says an aide to Democratic California Rep. Lois Capps, who authored the abortion-related amendment adopted last week by the House. "Federal law—the Hyde amendment—prohibits it."

The aide, who spoke on background, said that abortion coverage in the public healthcare option would be financed by premiums paid by individuals. The Capps amendment makes clear that abortions covered by the private healthcare plans would be paid for that way, but it is silent on how abortions in the public option would be funded.

Conservative antiabortion groups have pounced on that silence to allege that the Democrats are sneakily laying the groundwork for taxpayer-funded abortion. They reject claims that the healthcare bill is subject to the Hyde amendment, which has been reauthorized annually for three decades.

"The Hyde amendment is not a governmentwide law," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. "It affects Medicaid but has no bearing whatsoever on money that flows through the public healthcare plan. The Capps amendment authorizes government-funded abortion from Day 1."

With the Senate working up its own healthcare reform proposals, it's unclear whether the Capps amendment will be the last word on how President Obama's plan deals with abortion coverage. Obama has suggested that he wants to uphold the spirit of the Hyde amendment in government-controlled healthcare. "I'm pro-choice, but I think we also have the tradition in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded healthcare," he said recently.

For now, even Democratic groups are reading the Capps amendment's stipulations for abortion coverage differently. Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United—a progressive group allied with the White House and supportive of Obama's healthcare reform—said he interpreted the Capps amendment to bar federally financed abortion, but not because he believes the healthcare bill is subject to the Hyde amendment.

Rather, Korzen said, he read the amendment's prohibitions on government-backed abortion in the private healthcare plans as also applying to the public option.

"Our concern here is making sure the abortion issue doesn't derail the greater interest of having health insurance coverage for all Americans," he said. "I've read Capps to preserve current policies" that forbid federal funding of abortion.

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