References to Pope Paul II and Mother Teresa made during a House debate on an abortion amendment were incorrectly attributed to Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) in Judy Mann's column yesterday. The comments were made by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.).
Perhaps it was the oppressive summer heat, or maybe it was the massive power failure that plunged the U.S. Capitol into darkness earlier in the day, but in any event, 221 members of the House did something extraordinary Tuesday afternoon.
The incident occurred as the full House was considering the D.C. appropriations bill, an annual rite in which Congress approves the city's budget and the federal payment to the city. Ever since 1980, Congress has stipulated that no federal funds should be used to pay for abortions for poor women unless they are victims of rape or incest, or unless the woman's life is endangered by pregnancy.
The District has continued to provide abortion services for poor women by paying for them out of city revenues; thus, poor women in the city have had the same access to legal abortions that rich women have, giving rich and poor alike equal protection under the law. Fourteen states, six of them under court order, have continued using state funds to finance abortions for poor women following successful efforts by antiabortion forces in Congress to restrict federal funding for them.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, antiabortion forces in the House, who have used the abortion issue to severely curtail family planning aid to Third World countries, apparently decided to see how far they could go on the domestic front.
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), a Catholic who was formerly executive director of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee, rose and offered an amendment that barred use of any public funds -- D.C. taxpayers' money as well as federal funds -- for abortions in the District under all circumstances, except to protect the life of the woman.
He went on to describe various abortion methods and then to toss aside home rule considerations as "baloney." Congress, he argued, limits or places conditions on spending by states on environmental and civil rights issues and to pressure them to raise the drinking age.
When Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), a native of the District who is chairman of the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, made a point of order against the amendment, Smith threatened to offer an amendment prohibiting abortion funding altogether. "I certainly hope," he said, "since the amendment I offer contains the life of the mother exception, that the chairman will not go forward with his point of order."
Dixon insisted, and Smith offered his more restrictive amendment. In the debate that followed, Dixon spoke passionately: "So we should not feel good going home tonight knowing that we are doing to the District of Columbia something we could not do to any other city, state, or municipality in the country, and that is to disallow the people of the District to use their own tax dollars for an abortion to save the life of a mother, or where some young lady has been raped, or where there is a case of incest, or where the pregnancy does not lie in the womb but lies in the tube."
Smith replied that "when the number of abortions in the nation's capital exceeds the number of live births, this does become the business of this House." Lest anyone miss the religious pressure in this matter, he cited Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa who, Smith said, "pleaded very poignantly . . . that what we do to the unborn we do to Jesus Christ himself."
And Smith, noting the international restriction on U.S. family planning funds to nations that practice infanticide and coerced abortions, said, "Can we do less in our own federal city than we will do with the nation of Communist China?"
"It is an important difference in language. It is an important change in policy," argued Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.)
Indeed, it is. The amendment passed 221 to 199, providing the clearest signal to date that antiabortion forces are willing to barter the lives of women for their cause.
Ironies abound: While the Reagan administration is arguing that abortion policies should be left to individual states, its allies on the Hill dictate policy to the nation's capital. Then they turn around and cut funds for food and health care for indigent pregnant women and their children. Smith cast three such votes in 1984, according to the National Abortion Rights League.
The following day, the amendment failed in the Senate Appropriations Committee, so that conferees will resolve the question in the fall. Perhaps what happened in the House was a momentary triumph of extremism, but Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), the senior woman in the House, doesn't think so. "It's a signal we can't win anything," she said after the vote. "Mothers don't have a chance."