WASHINGTON – Health care legislation before Congress would allow a new government-sponsored insurance plan to cover abortions, a decision that would affect millions of women and recast federal policy on the divisive issue.
Federal funds for abortions are now restricted to cases involving rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. Abortion opponents say those restrictions should carry over to any health insurance sold through a new marketplace envisioned under the legislation, an exchange where people would choose private coverage or the public plan.
Abortion rights supporters say that would have the effect of denying coverage for abortion to millions of women who now have it through workplace insurance and are expected to join the exchange.
Advocates on both sides are preparing for a renewed battle over abortion, which could jeopardize political support for President Barack Obama's health care initiative aimed at covering nearly 50 million uninsured and restraining medical costs. The dispute could come to a head with House and Senate floor votes on abortion this fall, a prospect that many lawmakers would like to avoid.
"We want to see people who have no health insurance get it, but this is a sticking point," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We don't want health care reform to be the vehicle for mandating abortion." The church can't accept a public plan that covers abortion, he said.