The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 15 to 9 yesterday to kill tough House curbs on free federal obortions for low-income women.
The action appeared certain to set off another bitter confrontation between the House and the Senate similar to last year's. In 1977, each chamber took nearly two dozen votes on the issue and a compromise on funding of abortions through the Medicaid program was reached only on Dec. 7.
The Senate version of the abortion provision, a rider to the $56.5 billion funding bill for the Departments of Health, Education and Welfare and Labor in fiscal 1979, would permit HEW to pay for abortions in a wide variety of situations including any case where the woman's doctor believes it is "medically necessary" for whatever reason.
The tough House curb, put in the bill June 13, would forbid the U.S. government to pay for abortions through Medicaid except where the life of the woman is endangered by continuation of the pregnancy. Medical experts say there are relatively few situations where the life of the woman is endangered - perhaps a few hundred or a few thousand a year at most. Before the federal ban on Medicaid funding of most abortions was put in two years ago, the U.S. government was helping pay for about 260,000 abortions annually under Medicaid.
Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.), author of the Senate "medically necessary" language, said the House version would not permit federal funding of abortions even where the fetus may be known to be damaged or probably damaged (as in cases where the pregnant woman was exposed to German measles or similar diseases which damage the fetus). Moreover, he said, the House language would forbid U.S. funding of abortions in cases where, even though the life of the woman isn't endangered by pregnancy, she would suffer permanent and severe health damage if the pregnancy continued.
The Brooke language, which now goes to the floor, would permit U.S. funding of abortions under Medicaid where the doctor considers it "medically necessary," or in cases of rape or incest, or where the woman's life is in danger.
Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) was defeated 13 to 11 on a move to wirte in last year's final House-Senate compromise in this year's bill; he hoped to get quick House approval and avoid months of negotiations. Last year's version permits federal funding in cases of severe and long-lasting physical health danger to the woman, or where the woman's life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.
This is looser than the House restriction but less permissive than "medically necessary." Brooke objected, arguing that the House would simply demand more concessions if the Senate voluntarily weakened its position at this stage.