All-out battle is on over government-funded abortions vote possible today

June 29, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- With President Clinton appearing to waver on his pledge to include abortion in health care reform, supporters and opponents of abortion rights are waging an all-out campaign over government funding of abortions that could have its first critical test this week.

Both sides say that the House vote on whether government should pay for abortions for poor women will give one side crucial momentum for the battle later this year over whether national health care reform will cover abortions.

The vote could come as early as today.

Activists are waging an intensive campaign to sway legislators their way, sending millions of postcards, starting phone banks, placing advertisements and sending an army of lobbyists to Capitol Hill. The issue pits Catholic bishops, fundamentalist Christians and other abortion opponents against a coalition of 108 organizations that support abortion rights, from abortion-rights groups to labor unions.

"The message we're sending to the Clinton administration is that health care reform is enough of a minefield, with enough prospects for disaster and defeat, without stepping on the abortion land mine," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Abortion rights supporters are no less determined. "The pro-choice community is a formidable force in America," said Pamela Maraldo, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Ms. Maraldo said that Mr. Clinton would be wise to honor his commitment to include abortion as a health care benefit. "They're going to ask us to sell the plan," she said.

She and others assert that national health insurance must cover all reproductive health services, from prenatal care to abortions, because they are basic rights for women. Opponents argue that taxpayers -- who may help subsidize the plan through a payroll tax -- should not be compelled to pay for a surgical procedure that some find offensive.

Mr. Clinton's most recent comments suggest he is not firmly committed to including abortion as a health benefit.

"I don't think a decision has been made about that," he said last month at a televised town meeting, but "we shouldn't take away from peoplesome right they may now have in their health insurance plans."

Mr. Clinton's comments have given greater urgency to activists as they prepare for the House vote on the fate of a 16-year ban on Medicaid funding of abortions for low-income women. Before the ban, Medicaid paid for about 300,000 abortions a year.

On Thursday, a House committee voted to bar federal funds for abortion except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest. That vote renews, with some modifications, the so-called Hyde amendment -- named after its author, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. Mr. Clinton dropped it from his budget.

"We view the Hyde amendment . . . as the first skirmish in the ongoing battle," said Mr. Reed, of the Christian Coalition. "If we lose this one we're bound to lose the whole enchilada."

But abortion rights supporters believe they will be able to block the Hyde amendment through a procedural maneuver on the House floor, and will prevail when House and Senate members hammer out differences over the budget.

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