- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

Pro-life groups won a key victory this weekend when Congress passed legislation stipulating that state and local governments can’t coerce hospitals, insurers and other health care groups into performing or supporting abortions.

“It is a major victory,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. He said the measure will shield health care providers from “an orchestrated, accelerating, nationwide campaign by abortion pressure groups to enlist government agencies … in coercing health care providers to participate in abortion.”

The provision was crafted by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, and Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican, and was included in the $388 billion spending bill both chambers approved Saturday. Its inclusion prompted outrage from pro-choice lawmakers and groups, who said it was an eleventh-hour move to undermine abortion rights and to push the far-right agenda.

“This bill has some very far-reaching consequences,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.

She said Republicans, in an “underhanded” move, slipped their agenda into a bill that all lawmakers wanted to approve. “Congress is playing politics with the lives and health of women,” Ms. Saporta said.

The provision expands a federal law stipulating that a doctor can opt out of abortion training. It will deny federal funds to any federal agency, state or local government that discriminates against a health care entity because that entity doesn’t provide, pay for or support abortions. Entities include hospitals, insurers, health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and health care facilities.

Supporters of the provision point to health care providers who have been coerced into supporting abortion or punished because they don’t. The Alaska Supreme Court, for example, agreed with a pro-choice group that a private community hospital must perform late-term abortions, even though the procedure was against hospital policy. New Mexico denied a lease application for a community hospital that didn’t perform abortions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which championed the Hyde-Weldon provision, also pointed to statements of pro-choice groups such as the Maryland chapter of National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL Pro-Choice America), which in Web site material has said the goal of its Hospital Provider Project is to require Maryland hospitals to provide abortions.

Ms. Saporta and others said the provision will force states with pro-choice laws to either stop enforcing those laws or risk losing billions of federal dollars. She said HMOs that provide state Medicaid coverage now will be able to remove abortion coverage, leaving “the health care that poor women receive in jeopardy.” Opponents said the provision also reverses federal law that requires any health care facility receiving federal family planning money to offer pregnant women the option of abortion referral information.

“This bill highlights the true agenda of the far right, which controls Congress and the White House, eliminating a woman’s right to choose,” said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, called such groups extreme and said the provision “is about protecting the fundamental right of conscience for those who do not want to be forced to be involved in abortion.”

The House passed the provision as a stand-alone bill in 2002, but it was stalled in the Senate. This year, supporters tacked it onto the spending bill. Democrats did not try to strike the language from the bill on the House floor, “because they knew they would lose,” Mr. Johnson said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, backed away from threats to delay the spending bill because of the provision. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, agreed to let her have a Senate vote in the future to repeal it.

But Mr. Johnson said that even if the Senate repeals the provision, the House would not follow suit.

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