A coalition of 38 District of Columbia organizations launched a lobbying campaign yesterday to persuade Congress to let the city continue spending its own tax money to pay for abortions for the city's poor women.
Formation of the D.C. Abortion Rights Coalition was announced on the eve of today's scheduled meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, where the city budget for the 1981 fiscal year will be considered.
Congressional supporters of the antiabortion, right-to-life movement have served notice that they will try to tack a rider onto the D.C. budget legislation, either at today's committee meeting or next week on the House floor, that would prohibit virtually all Medicaid-financed abortions using either federal or District tax funds.
Antiabortion groups have been strongly lobbying for months on Capitol Hill in behalf of such a ban as part of their effort to outlaw all abortions in the country. Formation of the Abortion Rights Coalition to lobby on the opposite side locally was announced at a press conference at the District Building.
Organizers of the proabortion group, led by Lee Bullitt of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, stressed their view that any ban invoked by Congress on city-funded abortions would violate the principle of home rule that Congress voted to grant the District in 1973.
"The little home rule that we have is slowly being eroded away," City Council member John L. Ray (D-At-Large) told the news conference. "The (antiabortion) proposal violates both the spirit and the letter of the Home Rule Act," contended Leslie Harris, executive director of the D.C. area American Civil Liberties Union.
Abortion funding has sparked controversies in congressional consideration of the D.C. budget for the past three years.
The pending budget bill, which would provide $1.5 billion in operating funds in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, supported in part by a federal payment of $296 million, was approved last month by the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee.
As it will be considered today, the bill already contains language that would renew a partial ban on abortion adopted by Congress as a compromise last year between the House and Senate versions of the city budget.
Last year, the House voted 217 to 200 to approve a near-total ban on Medicaid abortions whatever the sources of funding, that was proposed by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.). The Senate balked, and the final compromise version banned federally supported abortions, but permitted the District to continue paying for them out of its own funds.
Since then, the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress has power to ban the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for most abortions. The same ruling upheld the right of the states to pay for Medicaid abortions from their own tax funds. Nine states and the District currently do so, but the District is the only jurisdiction whose budget is reviewed by Congress.
Just last week, the House voted to ban federal employes' medical insurance programs from paying for most abortions. That issue is now pending before the Senate.
In the past year, the city spent $1.3 million for 5,700 abortions, according to official figures.
If the Appropriations Committee does not adopt a stronger abortion ban today, Dornan will introduce last year's more stringent amendment when the budget reaches the floor, probably next week, an aide said.
The aide, Robert Marshall, contended the home rule argument by the proabortionists is specious, since Congress specifically reserved power to override D.C. legislation and to enact its own version, and also retained control over city appropriations. Marshall, like the right-to-life lobbyists, said it is a moral issue.
Among the 38 organizations that joined in forming the new Abortion Rights Coalition were such women's groups as the local chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Women's Equity Action League; religious groups such as the American Jewish Congress, Catholics for Free Choice and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, and such community groups as the citywide Welfare Rights Organization, the Sierra Club and Americans for Democratic Action.
City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) endorsed the coalition's aims.