Knight Ridder, November 21, 2004
$388 Billion Spending
Bill Contains Controversial Abortion Provision
WASHINGTON -- In the first sign of post-election
power by abortion opponents, Congress on Saturday
appeared poised to approve a sweeping $388
billion spending bill that would permit hospitals
and HMOs to avoid state requirements that they
offer abortion services.
Congressional Republican leaders inserted the
provision into the massive appropriations legislation
that provides money to scores of domestic government
agencies. Congress must pass the legislation
by the end of the week to avoid a government
shutdown. The House approved it by 344 to 51;
the Senate had not voted by Saturday evening.
Most lawmakers did not get a look at the legislation
until Saturday morning and, even as they prepared
to vote on it, many remained in the dark about
what was in the 1,600-page bill and an equally
voluminous explanatory text.
Departing from some of the more freewheeling
spending of recent years, lawmakers adhered
to budgetary constraints by whittling spending
for federal agencies, but still managed to
include money for favorite local projects.
The bill came just days after Congress increased
that nation's $7.4 trillion debt limit by $800
Republicans praised the package as a model of
fiscal restraint, noting that some federal
agencies had their spending cut. But Democrats
and some moderate Republicans complained that
the bill's across-the-board cut of .83 percent
for non-security programs unfairly hit some
programs that needed additional funds.
It was the abortion provision, however, that
elicited the most passionate protests, particularly
from women lawmakers. Though the House has
supported such language and included in a labor
and health spending bill earlier this year,
the Senate has never taken action on such a
The real impact of the legislation is hard to
determine. Forty-five states already allow
health care providers to refuse to provide
or pay for abortions and because the legislation
is tucked into a one-year spending bill, it
would have to be renewed on an annual basis
unless it's made permanent in separate legislation.
But the legislation carries significant political
symbolism. It was the first gesture of the
Republican controlled Congress in the wake
of elections that strengthened GOP control
of the House and Senate and re-elected President
Bush, an opponent of abortions.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called it
"an extraordinary sneak attack on women's
rights and a disgraceful display of ideology
over health." On Friday, nine of the 14
women in the Senate _ eight Democrats and Republican
Olympia Snowe of Maine _ urged Senate Appropriations
Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska to remove the
language from the bill.
Supporters, however, said it was simply a logical
extension of a "conscience" clause
that prohibits doctors from being forced to
offer abortions or undergo abortion training.
The new provision says no government agency
can discriminate against health care providers
who refuse to offer abortion-related services.
"This provision is intended to protect the
decisions of physicians, nurses, clinics, hospitals,
medical centers and even health insurance providers
from being forced by the government to provide,
refer or pay for abortions," said Rep.
Dave Weldon, a physician and Florida Republican.
Noting that 45 states permit health care providers
to decline participation in abortion or abortion
services, Weldon said abortion rights forces
were trying to overturn such laws in the courts.
"Abortion advocates have launched a campaign
to force hospitals and health care entities
to provide, refer and pay for abortions,"
In particular, some states and local governments
have denied mergers or certificates of need
to hospitals or other medical institutions
that refuse to provide abortions.
"This simply will put a stop to that,"
said Douglas Johnson, legislative director
for the National Right to Life Committee. "It
has no impact at all on any health care provider
who voluntarily wishes to provide these abortion
But supporters of abortion rights said states
that offer abortion under their Medicaid coverage
might face a loss of federal funds if they
demand all Medicaid providers provide abortion
services. They said the law would encourage
abortion opponents to pressure hospitals and
HMOs into refusing abortion services
"It creates the ability for far-right activists
to use intimidation tactics against HMOs, hospitals
and other health care entities to develop these
gag rule policies," said David Seldin,
a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, the
nation's leading abortion rights group.
The provision came in the aftermath of a determined
effort by abortion opponents to deny moderate
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter the chairmanship
of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As chairman,
Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, would
hold considerable sway over Bush's judicial
To win support from his colleagues for the chairmanship,
Specter had to promise that he would support
Bush's nominees and not apply a "litmus
test" that would reject judges that do
not support the landmark Roe-v-Wade Supreme
Court that established a woman's right to an
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information
<< Knight Ridder Washington Bureau --
to a friend
Us Newsletters News