Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Abortion focus of debate on health bill

intact insurance

SACRAMENTO — The decadeslong battle over abortion has emerged as a minidrama in the larger debate on a health care overhaul, and Central Valley lawmakers are divided.

U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, has joined at least 40 other House Democrats in vowing to oppose health care legislation if the abortion limits included in an amendment to the bill passed by the House survive, said spokeswoman Mara Lee.

The amendment, inserted to win needed votes from reluctant Democrats, would extend the ban on using federal money to pay for abortions. It could restrict abortion coverage for those who buy coverage through a proposed government-run insurance exchange, regardless of whether they receive a government subsidy.

This exchange would be one of the main ways for the uninsured to obtain coverage, choosing from a government-run public option and competing commercial plans. The government would provide subsidies to help those too poor to purchase insurance.

Matsui voted against the abortion amendment but gave her support to the overall bill. The Senate is working on its version of health care legislation, and the abortion issue could pose another hurdle for Democrats' hope to implement the Obama administration's top domestic priority.

"If we're going to have an abortion debate, let's have a separate abortion debate," not a "back-door" one, Lee said. "We are undoing years of work to protect a woman's right" to make reproductive decisions.

Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican whose district includes Calaveras County, voted for the abortion limits and opposed the broader health care bill.

"This is not a question of Roe v. Wade. It's about forcing taxpayers to pay for abortions," Lungren said, referring to the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.

Republicans point out that the amendment would not outlaw abortions.

"It just says it prohibits federal money to be used for abortions," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, adding that anyone who wants abortion coverage could purchase that on their own.

Republicans could have exploited Democratic tensions by keeping the House bill intact, McClintock said. With little room for error — the bill's margin of victory was five votes — House leaders might have then seen a major defeat of the broader health bill.

The abortion amendment passed with support from 64 Democrats, including Democratic Reps. Jim Costa of Fresno and Dennis Cardoza of Merced.

Costa and Cardoza, so-called Blue Dog Democrats who represent conservative-leaning districts, ultimately voted for the final overhaul package, including the abortion amendment.

Planned Parenthood's Mar Monte office, which covers 27 California counties and parts of northern Nevada, sent a letter Monday expressing dismay to the pair of valley congressmen.

The letter was signed by Deborah Ortiz, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood's Mar Monte region.

"Given our long friendship and history of working on behalf of those who have little to no access to health care, I welcome an explanation of your vote," her letter said. "Absent an explanation, I can only assume that the decision was a political, rather than a policy, decision."

Neither Cardoza nor Costa returned calls requesting interviews.

Abortion rights advocates argued that the amendment would have a disproportionate effect on poor women, because they are more likely to lack insurance and to seek coverage through the exchange.