COLUMBIA — The discourse on health care reform has included a sidebar debate over abortion, and some state groups are calling for the legislation to mirror abortion laws in Missouri and a handful of other states.
The Missouri Catholic Conference is asking for national measures to go further than some amendments have proposed. Although many measures have called for specific language in health bills that would assure no federal funding would go to abortions, abortion-rights opponents also support making a national standard out of a Missouri law that prohibits abortions paid for through private insurance. The Missouri Catholic Conference supports reforming health care but not unless these amendments are included.
"You step over the line as far as making health care reform become something that promotes abortion when you allow tax dollars to be used," said Mike Hoey, interim director for the Missouri Catholic Conference. "Abortion is not health care reform, and taxpayer-funded abortion should not be put in health care legislation."
The debate over language regarding abortion in health care legislation has picked up over the last three weeks, and the opposition is creating a strong faction. About 40 House Democrats and about 100 House Republicans signed a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urging her to bring to a vote the issue of individual health care subsidies going toward abortion.
Abortion rights opponents seek to amend both House and Senate health care bills to specifically include language that would prohibit any federal funding of abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life is in danger. Their aim is to essentially include this language from the Hyde Amendment, which went into effect in 1976.
"As a pro-life member of Congress, I cannot support a measure that allows for federal funding for abortion services," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said in an e-mail statement.
But the White House and many pro-abortion rights Democrats have sidestepped the issue, simply saying it shouldn't be an issue in the first place.
"There are already laws in place that prohibit funding, and this (proposed) law doesn't do anything to change that," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., echoing a sentiment many Democrats have used to dismiss the debate.
Not only do abortion rights opponents want the language of the Hyde Amendment transplanted into this new legislation, but some of the Missouri groups would also like to see restrictions on what can be achieved through private health insurance. Missouri law states that abortion may not be covered through private health insurance plans without a separate rider — which requires someone to pay extra to include abortion under their coverage — and that's exactly the standard abortion-rights opponents seek to extend nationwide.
"Whether it's taxes or a premium, it still comes from us and goes into funding abortion," said Patricia Skain, director of Missouri Right to Life, who added that her organization wouldn't have a position on health care legislation if it weren't for the abortion debate.
But pro-abortion rights groups in Missouri and nationally have responded to the push for abortion-related amendments. While national groups have said they're disappointed with the lack of progress in the health care legislation, Missouri abortion-rights supporters' message is clear: Don't follow our state's lead.
"I think it's a shame that a very necessary reform bill has been sidetracked into a lot of anti-choice rhetoric based on things that aren't just true," said Pamela Sumners, executive director for Naral Pro-Choice Missouri. "That's not what this bill is about. We think women who have coverage for abortion should still have that."
The pro-abortion rights groups say Missouri has some of the most restrictive reproductive laws in the country, and they wouldn't want to see it translate to the national level. A 2006 project by the Center for Reproductive Rights ranked Missouri No. 37 in regard to its standard of acceptable reproductive laws. In the rankings, Missouri was penalized for what the project called barriers to abortion. These include Missouri laws that require counseling and a waiting period before an abortion, as well as parental involvement for minors.
Hoey said the debate over abortion in health care should assure that those funding restrictions are carried over nationally, so taxpayers who oppose abortion don't have their money potentially going to fund something they're "fundamentally against."
"Everybody supports something they'd rather not through their tax dollars," Sumners said, responding to Hoey's argument. "I'd rather not have my tax dollars used to start weird wars in Iraq."
Peter Altschul is a Columbia resident who spent a year forming dialogue groups across the country for for activists on both sides of the issue to find common ground. He spoke at Carpe Diem last week about his work with these groups and said in a later interview that the debate over abortion in the health bill sometimes mirrors the opposing viewpoints with which he's worked.
He said that through his dialogue groups, pro- and anti-abortion rights groups could find common ground in four main areas: encouraging adoption, preventing teenage pregnancy, improving care for women with crisis pregnancies and cutting back on "over-the-top" language. He said it might help to turn the national focus to those areas instead of debating whether abortion would be covered under a health plan.
Even so, he said bringing abortion into the health care debate could be a product of general opposition to the legislation.
"I think for the opponents of health care reform, abortion is a red herring," Altschul said. "There are people in the pro-life community who genuinely think this issue matters, and there are people who dislike the whole concept of the health care plan and are using it as a wedge."