A bitter fight over abortion, which wracked Congress for months last year before winding up in the courts, is scheduled to erupt again when the House takes up the $61.3 billion Labor-HEW appropriations bill about June 15.
The fight is over a single sentence in the massive bill that prohibits use of Medicaid funds "to perform abortions except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term."
Last year, a similar amendment offered by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) was adopted by the House, but rejected by the Senate.
When the House and Senate met in conference, neither body would give way, so it went back to both bodies for another vote. The House again adopted the Hyde language, 223 to 150. The Senate rejected it 53 to 35. It took another month of meetings before the Senate give away and accepted the prohibition.
On the very day the bill became law, the second U.S. District Court in New York issued a temporary restraining order against the amendment's taking effect. Later a month a preliminary injunction was issued while the matter was being appealed. Medicaid funds are currently being provided for abortions while appeals to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court are pending, but a final ruling is not expected in 1977, so Congress must face the issue again.
This time the House Appropriations Committee has simply accepted the Hyde amendment as part of the bill, but that action will not go unchallenged on the House floor.
Yesterday a number of groups and individuals opposing the ban, led by the National Women's Political Caucus, announced they are gearing to have the language stricken from the bill when it reaches the House floor.
Feminist leader Gloria Steinem, speaking for the NWPC, also strongly criticized the Carter administration for backing the provision. "I do not see how this administration can speak of human rights and then deny to the poor women of this country the basic right of reproductive freedom, nor how President Carter can advocate fiscal responsibility and then deny federal funding for the essential medical service of abortion," Steinem said.
She was backed up by representatives of Planned Parenthood, abortion groups, the Congressional Black Caucus, Republican and Democratic women's groups and minority groups.
They argue that the ban is unconstitutional since it denies to poor women what rich women can pay for and denies funds for abortions while providing them for childbirth and pregnancy.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare estimates that approximately one-third of all legal abortions, some 300,000 annually, are paid for by Medicaid at a yearly cost of approximately $50 million.
Pro-life groups and backers of the amendment argue that the government has no business paying for abortions, even if they legal, and that the ban will save money.
But Dr. Lewis Hellman, former deputy assistant secretary at HEW, said an abortion costs only about $350 at most, while pre-natal care through the first year of a baby's life costs $2,200. It is estimated to cost $35,261 to raise a child to the age of 18.
The abortion issue is crushing one for politicians, said Sen. Robert Packwood (D-Ore.), who led the fight against the Hyde amendment in the Senate. He termed it a "one-issue issue" much like gun control or fluoridation, where the voter who has strong anti-abortion feelings will vote against a condidate solely on that issue.
"In a close race that 2 or 3 per cent could defeat you," he said.
Packwood said it was his "hunch" that the fight would be played out much as it was the last time - with the Senate rejecting the Hyde amendment and the House accepting it, unless a Supreme Court ruling in the meantime changes the picture.
"If the Supreme Court strikes down the Hyde amendment, Congress will probably vote against it. If it upholds it, we'll be faced with the amendment being put on any number of bills," Packwood said.