By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; A08
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.
The frustration over the language on abortion was compounded by the executive order, which Obama signed out of sight of cameras on Wednesday, in stark contrast to an elaborate ceremony when he signed the legislation a day earlier. Some abortion-rights advocates fear the order will make it more difficult to achieve one of their biggest priorities: elimination of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions.
"What we had hoped for when the president was elected was that this would be an opportunity to break down the many obstacles to abortion," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "That instead, one year into the Obama presidency, we have moved the line further away is just stunning."
Obama took a number of steps immediately after his election pushed by abortion-rights advocates, including removing restrictions on funding for international family planning groups that support abortion, allowing the morning-after pill Plan B to be made available at military hospitals and announcing plans to rescind a new federal regulation designed to protect health-care workers who do not want to deliver care they find objectionable, including abortion.
But disappointed abortion rights groups also pointed to a seemingly minor provision in the legislation designed to protect health-care workers who did not want to be forced to violate their personal beliefs related to abortion. Originally, the language extended that protection to those who were both "willing" and "unwilling" to perform abortions. In the end, the protections for those willing were dropped.
"We thought it was a modest, evenhanded proposal to have it go both ways, and we couldn't get even that," said Helene Krasnoff, a senior staff attorney for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
But others said they considered it a significant victory that the final legislation did not incorporate a proposal by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) to ban coverage of abortion in plans offered in the exchange.
Several advocates noted that the legislation contains many elements that will benefit women.
"All in all, this is a historic accomplishment and is a response to women who have been crying out for help in dealing with the failings of the health-care system. It will have immediate and long-term benefits for women and their families," said Amy Allina of the National Women's Health Network. "But it clearly came at a cost."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.