The Senate Appropriations Committe voted 13 to 11 yesterday to forbid the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions. But the committee made some exceptions - for example, where the mother's life is in danger, or where pregnancy results from rape or incest.
A bill passed by the House last week contains no exceptions. The Senate committee action ia an almost certain sign that Congress will agree on some form of abortion restrictions this year, just as it did last year.
The committee action came one day after the Supreme Court ruled that state governments can legally refuse to pay for elective abortions with their federal Medicaid money. Medicaid is federal health aid for the poor.
The Supreme Court's decision had at least one immediate result. St. Louis Mayor James F. Conway ordered that city's two general hospitals to stop performing elective abortions while lawyers study what the court said.
Missouri was one of nine states that had law or regulations limiting Meiciaid abortions but were under court orders to perform the abortions anyway until the Supreme Court ruled. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey were other states in this category. Their officials yesterday were still studying the Supreme Court's decision, and had issued no new regulations.
Meanwhile, an anti-abortion organization in Chicago petitioned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to lift a stay on enforcement of last year's congressional action limiting use of federal funds for abortions.
Last year's abortion-restriction law was stayed by a federal court almost as soon as it was passed, on grounds it violated the equal-protection clause of the Constitution.
The anti-abortion group, Americans United for Life, Inc., Legal Defense Fund, said there is "no reason" for leaving the stay in force in light of the high court's ruling Monday.
The Appropriations Committee vote foreshadows a major Senate floor fight over a deeply emotional issue.
Under existing law the government pays about $50 million a year under Medicaid for about 300,000 abortions, about third of the American total. These payments have continued this year because last year's abortion restriction was stayed in court.
The Senate in last year's votes resisted an abortion restriction for a long time, then finally gave in to the House after a lengthy House-Senate conference.
The Sente Appropriations Committee continued this resistance on Monday, refusing, 11 to 10, to add an anti-abortion rider to the $60.7 billion Health, Education and Welfare Department money bill.
But yesterday, following the Supreme Court's decision, the committee reconsidered. It first voted 13 to 11 not to kill this year's House-passed anti-abortion rider entirely, then started rewriting the House language to soften it. Richard S. Schweikner (R-Pa.) first loosened the ban so that Medicaid could fund abortions for women whose life would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term. The Carter administration, while supporting a general abortion restriction, support this ecxception, which was in last year's legislation.
J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who favors the abortion ban, then offered additional softening language. It would allow federal funding where the mother had multiple sclerosis or renal disease or other diseases which would "seriously deform or debilitate the fetus," or where the pregnancy occured as a result of rape or incest or in the fallopian tube. Moreover, the anti-abortion language wouldn't bar the use of morning-after pills or intrauterine devices, both of which are sometimes technically classified as abortion devices.
The committee approved, 16 to 8, the inclusion of these loopholes in the ban, but Edward W. Brooks (R-Mass.) said he will fight on the floor because the bill still bars abortions for ordinary low-income women who want one for no special medical reason.
The bill may reach the floor this week.