The House of Representatives has voted to bar federal employes and their dependents from using federally aided employe health insurance plans to pay for abortions.
The restriction would require approval by the Senate and the president before it could take effect. The health insurance plans involved cover about 10 million active and retired employes and dependents.
The House adopted the ban as its last item of business late Wednesday by a 228-to-170 vote on an amendment proposed by Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio), one of the most outspoken foes of federal financing of abortions.
Ashbrook called the amendment, tacked onto a routine appropriations bill, "the next logical step in the right direction -- leading ultimately to shutting off the tap to the free flow of abortion funding."
According to estimates quoted in the House debate, about 20,000 abortions were performed last year under federal employe health programs.
The total federal employe health insurance system involves about $4 billion in premiums, paid to 105 individual insurance programs. The federal government contributes about 60 percent of the money, or $2.4 billion. Employes themselves pay the rest.
The amendment adopted Wednesday stipulates that no federal funds be used to pay for an abortion under any of the insurance programs. At present many, although not all, of the programs pay for abortions when considered medically necessary.
The amendment also would forbid use of federal funds to pay administrative expenses in connection with any of the insurance programs that offer coverage for abortions.
Ashbrook said the amendment would not deny federal employes or their families the option of obtaining an abortion under law.
"It only denies them the tax money to help pay for it," he said.
Ashbrook's measure was supported by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), sponsor of a law that curbs federal funding of abortions for the poor. "If we deny federaly subsidized abortions for poor women," Hyde said Wednesday, "let us do it for . . . government employes as well."
He termed the government workers "well-paid."
Hyde, who said abortion foes had been criticized for "making war on the poor," said Ashbrook's proposal "proves we are against abortion, not against poor people."
An opponent argued that most women in government hold the lowest paying jobs, and the National Abortion Rights League said that adoption of the amendment would deprive "a staggering number of women" of access to abortion as "an affordable health option."
"Female federal employes are already calling us," said Suellen Lowry, legislative director of the National Abortion Rights League. "They're very upset about this [amendment] and they want to know what they can do."
In opposing the amendment on the House floor, Rep. Gladys N. Spellman (D-Md.), emphasized that employes pay part of the federal health insurance premiums.
She also noted that the language of the amendment would rule out all abortions, even those adjudged necessary to save life.
". . . Can you imagine saying to people that because they work for the federal government they may not use their own money to save their own lives?" she asked.
"Besides," she added, ". . . we would have a very difficult time determining which procedures are coming from the . . . percent of the money contributed by the federal employe."
Jule M. Sugarman, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, which is involved in administering the insurance programs, said his agency is "very concerned" about the Ashbrook amendment for administrative reasons and because it allows no exceptions.
The Hyde amendment, a controversial measure that sharply restricts government financing of abortions under the Medicaid program, permits payment in cases where a women's life would be jeopardized without abortion or where a pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.
Ashbrook indicated in House debate Wednesday that his amendment could be altered later to permit such exceptions.
Joining Spellman in voting against the amendment were Washington-area Reps. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), Joseph Fisher (D-Va.) and Herbert Harris (D-Va.), Rep. Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) voted for the measure.