Obama has angered women's groups by reaffirming no federal funds for abortion

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

President Obama, who quietly signed an executive order Wednesday reaffirming that no federal funds can be used for abortion, is facing fury from a core part of his constituency: women's advocates.

The White House agreement to issue the order to reassure some antiabortion Democrats about the health-care legislation has stunned and infuriated many women's groups and abortion rights advocates.

"Women elected him," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "He campaigned as a pro-choice president. We wished he would storm the ramparts for every one of our issues. It really pains me to conclude that on balance this law is not good for women. It's health reform that has been achieved on the backs of women and at the expense of women."

The anger also stems from language in the legislation that allows abortion to be covered by health insurance plans offered on new "exchanges," but requires buyers to make two premium payments -- one for most of their coverage and a second, far smaller one, for abortion coverage.

Abortion opponents complain the language did not go far enough to keep federal money from subsidizing abortion.

"The statute appropriates billions of dollars in new funding without explicitly prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion, and it provides federal subsidies for health plans covering elective abortions," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.

But abortion rights groups and health-care analysts predict few plans will end up covering abortion because the requirement of two payments would be cumbersome for insurers and objectionable to customers.

"We're very disappointed," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. "Health-care reform was supposed to expand health-care coverage for women. Now women will be worse off under health-care reform."

It is too soon to tell whether the president's decision to sign the executive order has affected his standing among women, but recent polling shows that their views on abortion more generally, and on the president, are holding steady. In a January Washington Post-ABC poll, half of adults, including 53 percent of women and majorities of Republicans and independents, said they preferred a "more restrictive" option, where "insurance plans in which the government is involved [are] forbidden from covering abortions."

Among some women, the disappointment fuels earlier misgivings about Obama, who ended the prospect of the nation electing its first female president when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

"I've heard women complain very loudly, 'This would never have happened if Hillary had been president,' " O'Neill said.

Several advocates said they were especially bitter because at one point during the intense negotiations over the abortion provisions in the health-care legislation they had agreed to a compromise that they thought would resolve the issue without either side giving ground.

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