- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2010

Three months after abortion nearly derailed President Obama’s health care bill, the hot-button issue is back before Congress with an amendment to the Senate’s defense policy bill that would end the military’s long-established ban on allowing abortions in its overseas hospitals.

The change was sponsored by Sen. Roland W. Burris, Illinois Democrat, and passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee in late May. It would require women to pay for abortions upfront and without government funds, but would allow doctors at military hospitals to perform the procedures if those conditions are met.

The amendment would overturn a policy put into place by congressional Republicans in the mid-1990s that restricted abortions at military hospitals only to cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger.

Military personnel deserve “the highest quality care,” said Mr. Burris, and “that includes allowing women and their families the right to choose at facilities operated under the Department of Defense.” The amendment passed the committee on a 15-12 vote.

But the provision has angered pro-life lawmakers, who argue that taxpayer dollars would still go to fund doctors and surgical equipment used for abortions in military hospitals, and questioned why the policy change was implemented in the annual defense policy bill.

“This administration and its allies seem determined to upend widely accepted compromises reached on a variety of issues,” said Rep. William M. “Mac” Thornberry, Texas Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “Most Americans would find it deeply offensive to have their taxpayer dollars go to pay for abortions in the military.”

The battle is erupting just a few months after a fight over taxpayer funding of abortion almost sank the Democrats’ health care bill. Pro-life activists argued that the bill expanded government-funded coverage of abortions, and nearly rallied enough votes to defeat the entire measure. Mr. Obama intervened and begged Democrats not to use health care to alter abortion policy.

Similar issues are in play in the defense bill - popular legislation that is considered crucial.

A White House spokesman didn’t return messages seeking comment on the president’s position.

Abortion rights groups applauded the committee’s vote. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said joining the military “shouldn’t cause women to lose health care options if they’re stationed overseas.”

The Senate’s defense bill, including the Burris amendment, still faces a vote in the full chamber, and must then be squared with the House’s bill, which does not include any changes to the abortion policy.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, opposed the change, and his spokeswoman said that if the final Senate bill includes the amendment, the difference would be hashed out in the House-Senate conference committee.

“Chairman Skelton is pro-life and has stood for years against repealing this abortion prohibition within the Defense Department,” said spokeswoman Lara Battles. “His stance on the issue has not changed.”

Polls show the country has shifted toward pro-life positions since Mr. Obama took office. In May 2009 a Gallup poll found 51 percent of Americans identified themselves as pro-life, while 42 percent called themselves pro-choice. That had slipped to 47 percent pro-life versus 45 percent pro-choice in a Gallup poll last month.

The military ban has a long history. It was first imposed in spending bills in the late 1970s and was codified in defense policy in 1985. President Clinton issued an executive order in 1993 allowing women to obtain privately funded abortions at overseas military hospitals, but pro-life groups said that military doctors refused to perform the procedures and civilian doctors had to be brought in.

In 1995, Republicans reimposed the ban, with exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. But government funds can only be used for cases in which the mother’s life is in danger.

The Burris amendment would also allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions in overseas facilities, according to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who supported the change.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and a leading opponent of abortion on Capitol Hill, said pro-life forces would push to keep the ban in place.

“Weve had to fight this fight before,” Mr. Smith said. “Military hospitals should not be turned into abortion mills.”

He said the issue puts Mr. Obama on the spot again after the president signed an executive order in March, after passage of the health care reform measure, to preserve policies that keep federal funds from paying for abortions.

“This will now be a test to see if Obama sticks to his word,” Mr. Smith said.

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