The abortion battle that riddled the health care overhaul debate is finding new life amid a once-overlooked provision to fund community health care centers.
Pro-life advocates say the Democrats’ health care bill would send millions of dollars to community health care centers without restrictions to keep the money from being used to fund abortions, potentially expanding access to the procedure.
House members are being lobbied to oppose the bill because of the funding and because of concern that federal money would cover abortion-inclusive insurance plans. It adds a new wrinkle to the already complicated process Democrats are undertaking to get their overhaul plan through Congress.
Supporters of the health care bill say they have no intentions to change the current law prohibiting federal funding of abortions and will add further restrictions if needed.
Abortion already has proved to be a significant sticking point in President Obama’s quest to reform the nation’s $2.5 trillion health care industry.
A small group of pro-life Democrats added substantial restrictions to the House’s plan over objections from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. The same group opposes the Senate bill because it doesn’t have the same prohibitions, creating a potential voting bloc that could keep the bill from reaching the president’s desk.
Mr. Obama’s plan includes $11 billion in new funding for community health care centers with a primary focus on preventive and primary care in underserved areas.
The National Right to Life Committee said the funding wouldn’t come with long-standing federal restrictions that limit funding of abortions only to cases in which the life of the mother is at stake or in cases of rape or incest.
“This [funding] could be used to cover abortions,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. “There are no restrictions tied to the money.”
The group calls the Senate bill, which could come up for a vote in the House, “the most pro-abortion piece of legislation to come before the House of Representatives.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the health care center funding could lead to “hundreds of thousands of abortions per year that taxpayers would be forced to pay for.”
For decades, both sides of the abortion rights issue have lived under the so-called Hyde amendment compromise that prohibits federal funding of abortion and applies to programs such as Medicaid.
The White House says Mr. Obama has no intention of changing the policy in a health care reform bill.
“If there is a drafting issue that requires a technical change to make clear that federal funds for community centers should not be used to fund abortions, he will work with Congress to clarify it,” said spokeswoman Linda Douglass.
Pro-choice advocates say that preventing access to the procedure unfairly targets low-income women but that they have no intention of making the health care reform bill an abortion bill.
Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said the idea that federal dollars would cover abortions is “patently false.”
“They’re interpreting the Senate language incorrectly,” she said. “Any federal money that goes to community health centers or anything else cannot be used for abortion.”
Much of the highly charged abortion debate within the larger conversation about health care reform has come down to interpretation.
Pro-choice lawmakers said the House bill didn’t fund abortion access with federal dollars. Pro-life lawmakers said it did. An amendment ultimately was approved - with the backing of a small group of Democrats and nearly all Republicans - that prevented any money in the entire bill from funding abortions.
Mrs. Pelosi opposed the amendment but voted for the bill with hopes that the language would be changed.
The Senate plan includes some abortion restrictions, but not a complete ban that pro-life advocates prefer. Neither abortion rights supporters nor opponents like the Senate language.
Mrs. DeGette said the Pro-Choice Caucus is examining the Senate bill and hasn’t determined how they would like to change it.
It’s unclear how the Senate language could be altered even if lawmakers agreed on the changes. Democrats are embarking on a plan to wrap up the health care bill using reconciliation, a complicated procedural tool that would circumvent the chance for a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee and a key player in any use of reconciliation, told reporters Tuesday that he doesn’t see how any abortion language would fit that requirement.