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Right-Wing Lobbyists Try Scare Tactic of Abortion to Thwart Health Reform

Using the false threat of taxpayer-funded abortion, lobbyists are attempting to scuttle support for a public option.

"I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the -- Medicaid bill."

Those were the words of Illinois Sen. Henry Hyde, on the floor of Congress in 1977. Just four years earlier, Roe v. Wade had legalized abortion across the country. Almost immediately, opponents of reproductive rights began seeking out ways to limit access to the procedure. One of their major early successes was the Hyde Amendment, which, ever since 1976, has banned Medicaid -- the federal health insurance program for poor women and children -- from paying for abortions, except in the most extreme cases when a woman's physical health or life is in danger. Medicaid covers 7 million American women, or 12 percent of women of reproductive age. Federal employees, members of the U.S. military, Peace Corps volunteers, and prisoners are also barred from using their government health coverage to access abortion.

Will current health care reform efforts mean that for the first time since Roe, federal government dollars will pay directly for abortions? It's unlikely. But the religious right and its Republican enablers want grassroots conservatives to believe it will, hoping the resulting outcry will scuttle attempts to reform our expensive health care system and provide coverage for 47 million uninsured Americans. They are playing the abortion card.

In a widely circulated July 5 Washington Times op-ed, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins wrote, "The House health reform plan covers 'family planning,' the well-worn buzz word that includes abortion unless specified to the contrary, and given the Democratic Party's commitment to abortion, it would be naive to assume, unless there is an explicit prohibition in the bill, that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will not use her discretion to fund abortions with taxpayers' money." And in a letter to Congress, National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson warned, "A vote for this legislation, as drafted, is a vote for tax-subsidized abortion on demand."

This rhetoric is beyond hyperbolic -- it is downright deceptive. "When federal law discusses family planning, it never includes abortion," says Adam Sonfield, a senior policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual and reproductive health. "The federal government would never talk about it in that way."

In actuality, "family planning" language refers exclusively to contraceptive services, in part because of the Hyde Amendment. Yet so politicized is reproductive health, that even to offer birth control to poor women, individual states must apply for a waiver from Medicaid. Only half of states have done so. Though the legislative details are still being ironed out, the Health and Human Services secretary, when choosing what services to cover under any potential public insurance plan, will likely be bound by all of the existing laws that prevent the federal government from financing abortion, and that make even family planning coverage cumbersome.

None of these restrictions would be explicitly overturned by any of the health reform proposals currently being considered in Congress. Far from cackling as they sneakily lobby for "abortion-on-demand" legislation, women's health advocates are actually rather anxious. In the Senate, anti-choice Republicans say they will oppose any health reform plan that subsidizes abortion coverage or even includes, in the proposed health insurance exchanges, private insurers that cover abortion. Currently, over 90 percent of health plans cover abortion. That means if Democrats capitulate, the majority of women who currently have abortion coverage could lose it. The result would be a near-blanket restriction on women's access to insurance-subsidized abortion, one far more radical than the Hyde Amendment.