The Senate yesterday took a step backward from its traditionally sympathetic attitude toward use of federal funds for abortion.
Each year since the Supreme Court in 1973 struck down state antiabortion laws and federal funds became available for abortions for the poor, the House has voted a virtual ban on using federal funds for abortion. The Senate then would reject the House language or water it down and they would compromise in conference.
But yesterday the Senate wrote into the Health, Education and Welfare appropriation bill the language that became law after last year's negotiations between the two bodies. By starting this year where it ended last year the Senate leaves itself less bargaining room and may have to accept more restrictive language in the end.
The House this year approved a ban on use of federal funds for abortions unless the mother's life would be endangered.
By vote of 57 to 42, the Senate approved a provision permitting use of federal funds for abortion where there is danger to life or in the case of rape or incest which has been promptly reported to police or health officials or when two physicians determine that severe and long-lasting health damage would be done to the mother unless an abortion were performed.
Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who tried to knock all reference to abortions out of the bill, said the provisions adopted would permit only 1 percent of the abortions desired by the poor.
This year for the first time, the Senate Appropriations Committee failed to delete the antiabortion language adopted by the House. So when the bill came to the floor the usual roles were reversed. Those who supported letting women decide whether they should have an abortion had to try to knock that language out or water it down.
Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), floor manager of the bill, offered language that the Senate had originally approved last year. It would permit use of federal funds for abortions which were "medically necessary."
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), said this language was so loose it would permit "abortion on demand." He failed, 53 to 46, in an attempt to strike that phrase from Magnusons' amendment. But several senators voted against Helms only after they were assured that the language now in the law would be offered as a substitute for Magnuson's less restrictive language.
There were suggestions that when the Senate finishes action on the bill today, its conferees should be instructed to insist on its language and not give way to the House. Magnuson said he would not go any further.
One reason the Senate stepped back on abortion probably was the absence of former senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), who led the flight in committee, on the floor and in conference for years.