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Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 23, 2009

President Obama, who has vowed to find common ground on culture-war issues, finds himself in the middle of a classic Washington dispute over abortion that is further undermining support among conservative Democrats for his ambitious health-care reform efforts.

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Abortion is not explicitly mentioned in any of the major health-care bills under consideration in Congress. But abortion opponents charge that the legislation would make abortion more widely available and more common by requiring insurance plans to pay for the procedures and providing government funding to subsidize plans that pay for them.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said this week that decisions on specific benefits such as abortion coverage should be "left to medical experts in the field," referring to a proposed advisory board that would recommend minimum levels of coverage for private insurers.

The dispute presents another unwelcome distraction for the White House and a political opportunity for Republicans, who are seizing on the issue as part of a broader attempt to kill health legislation that they believe is too intrusive and too costly.

A group of conservative Democrats led by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has proposed a compromise that would neither require nor forbid private insurers to cover the procedure as long as no federal funding is used; another group of Democrats and Republicans held a news conference Wednesday to call for an explicit ban on funding.

The conflict comes as two House Democrats on either side of the abortion divide prepare to introduce legislation this week aimed at encouraging pregnancy prevention and greater government support for young mothers. The measure from Ryan, who opposes abortion, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who supports abortion rights, has attracted an unusual array of supporters ranging from Planned Parenthood to evangelical leaders such as the Rev. Joel Hunter of Orlando.

The developments underscore the emotional and often intractable nature of the abortion debate, which also flared during the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Obama has repeatedly called for finding common ground by advocating policies to reduce the number of abortions and unintended pregnancies, a message he amplified as part of a widely watched address at Notre Dame University and during a recent visit with Pope Benedict XVI.

But the health-care legislation has reignited allegations from antiabortion groups that such pledges are an attempt by Obama and his allies to paper over their support for abortion rights with policies that will do little to reduce use of the procedure. Abortion opponents are preparing to rally Thursday against the proposed health-care reforms, and the group Americans United for Life has demanded a meeting with Obama to discuss the issue.

"This is a president who says he wants to reduce abortions," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. "But the actual policies that this administration is promoting will result in massive public subsidies for abortion and result in a massive increase in the number of abortions."

Democratic leaders and abortion rights groups say those concerns are exaggerated, and some accuse abortion opponents of attempting to use the health-care debate to further restrict legal access to abortion under private insurance plans. "This is the kind of divisiveness that the public has grown very tired of," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has endorsed the Ryan-DeLauro bill.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who says the House legislation contains "a hidden abortion mandate," is in talks with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) about compromise language. "It's been a long-held conviction by many members that taxpayer dollars should not be used for abortion," Stupak said in an interview, referring to restrictions first enacted in 1976 for Medicaid funds.

In their proposal to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Ryan and four other Democrats say that allowing insurers to chart their own abortion policies as long as taxpayer money isn't used for the procedures represents "a common ground solution" that effectively maintains current law on abortion funding. Their proposal also stipulates that current state restrictions on the procedure would still apply.

The pregnancy prevention bill proposed by Ryan and DeLauro would establish and expand initiatives focused on contraceptives and other prevention measures, including an expansion of Medicaid coverage for family-planning services. The bill, which was drafted by the centrist advocacy group Third Way, also includes policies aimed at helping young mothers, including expanded maternity care and more financial assistance for adoptions.

Backers say the bill has been carefully scrubbed for months to remove policies that might alienate either side, such as financial support for the morning-after pill. Hunter, senior pastor of Orlando's Northland megachurch, said the proposal "isn't going to end the disagreement or the alarm that comes up on both sides. But I think it is the first of its kind to take such an incendiary culture-war issue and really make progress. It's a start."

Rachel Laser, Third Way's culture program director, said that the "approach represents the politics of the future on abortion."

But Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said Wednesday that the bill would effectively subsidize abortion providers by increasing funding for family-planning services and would "further encourage promiscuous sex."

The White House has not endorsed any specific legislation on reducing abortions. But Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy adviser, said in an interview that the Ryan-DeLauro proposal represents "a very positive development." She also said the administration, which has been hosting meetings between advocates on both sides of the abortion debate throughout the summer, expects to issue its own package of proposals later in the year.

"The president started this process with the desire to find common ground and to work with people across the political spectrum," Barnes said, adding: "The bottom line is to put concrete ideas on the table."



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The Government's Approach on Abortion

Since 1976, Congress has annually approved the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. The measure prevents federal Medicaid funding from being used to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. Some states, however, use state funds to pay for procedures in other cases for poor women.

Similar measures bar the use of federal funds for abortion in other ways, such as for women in the military, in federal prisons, receiving care through the Indian Health Service and those relying on the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Abortion opponents are concerned that health reform legislation pending in Congress would nullify the Hyde Amendment and other measures, as well as require private health insurance and any public health insurance programs to pay for abortion. Currently, insurers are neither required nor barred from paying for abortions.

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