Health Battle Over Abortion Moves to Senate Bill

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pro-choice activists are battling to keep the House's Stupak-Pitts amendment out of the Senate version of the health care bill. In doing so, they find themselves squaring off against an old, nearly forgotten barrier: the 1977 Hyde amendment.

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Lois Herr speaks out against the Stupak-Pitts amendment at a pro-choice rally in West Chester, Penn.WEST CHESTER, Penn. (WOMENSENEWS)--Progressive organizations and pro-choice activists will team up for a rally in the capital on Dec. 2, during the week the Senate is expected to begin debating its version of health insurance reform.

Their aim: to stop senators from absorbing the Stupak-Pitts amendment--which is in the U.S. House of Representatives' bill--in their version.

"We're working our hearts out to stop Stupak-Pitts," Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, told Women's eNews in a recent interview.

The amendment--named for Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa.--infringes on abortion access in three ways:

  • It prevents any government-run plan from offering abortion coverage, even if women pay for the service with their own premiums;
  • It prohibits participants in a proposed health insurance exchange from receiving abortion coverage if they also receive government subsidies available to low- and moderate-income earners;
  • It requires private insurance companies in the exchange to only provide abortion as supplementary coverage.

The practical result of the Stupak-Pitts amendment would mean "a new norm of exclusion" for abortion coverage, according to a recent analysis by George Washington University's School of Public Health.

Chance of Dropped Coverage

In the five states that currently regulate the insurance industry's coverage of abortion there's no market for supplementary coverage. The George Washington University study concludes that it would be "virtually impossible" for the industry to segregate a supplemental abortion plan from a more general plan because of legal, technical and administrative hurdles. That could encourage insurers interested in participating in the public exchange system to drop abortion coverage, which is now widespread in private plans.

Activists will be pushing senators to accept a carefully crafted compromise on abortion named after Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., rather than one similar to Stupak-Pitts.

Scuttled by the vote on Stupak-Pitts, the Capps amendment proposes a ban on federal funding for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But Capps' compromise does allow insurance companies in the exchange and a government-run plan to cover abortion if women pay for the service through premiums.

With its explicit and potential consequences, Stupak-Pitts is widely seen as the greatest infringement on abortion access since the days before Jan. 22, 1973, when abortion was illegal and the Supreme Court had not yet enshrined abortion as part of a woman's constitutional right to privacy in its Roe v. Wade ruling.

How did abortion restrictions manage to travel forward, politically speaking, under the cover of reforming health insurance?

The answer is the Hyde amendment, which was passed in 1977 and persists as an annual rider to the Department of Health and Human Service's spending bill.

Hyde prohibits federal funding for abortion for Medicaid recipients, except in cases of rape, incest or if the woman's life is threatened.

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