Women's Enews, December 6, 2004
U.S. Gag Rule
Included in Emergency Spending Bill
by Cynthia L. Cooper
(WOMENSENEWS)--A behind-the-scenes maneuver by
anti-choice adherents in Congress and the White
House could result more scenes like the one
that confronted a woman in 1998.
The woman, whose identity has been kept confidential,
needed an emergency abortion when her water
broke only 14 weeks into her pregnancy, but
the Manchester, N.H., hospital where her obstetrician,
Dr. Wayne Goldner, had privileges refused admission.
The hospital said all abortions were banned
under a new affiliation with a religious hospital
and the woman had to travel in a taxi 80 miles
to another facility.
Since then, pressure by the Attorney General
of New Hampshire resulted in reversal of the
hospital merger and the return of doctors'
ability to provide abortions in Manchester.
Across the country, states faced with the wholesale
expansion of anti-abortion religious healthcare
also used their own state laws to prevent summary
denial of abortion care to women.
But states may be prevented from taking action
in the future.
Because of 104 words slipped into a 3,500 page
spending bill that rushed through Congress
in the last two weeks, similar stories of abortion
service denial may emerge across the country.
The add-on language permits doctors, medical
personnel, hospitals, insurers and health maintenance
organizations to privately ban abortions with
impunity, and even to prevent employees from
making referrals. No reason need be given for
these private bans. No exceptions are required
for women who are raped, in emergency need,
or facing death or disabling impairment.
In addition, federal, state and local laws that
bar health providers from denying abortion
services will be rendered impotent, unless
a state is willing to give up its entire allotment
of federal funding for health, education and
labor programs - --billions of dollars per
The terse provision is in the $388 billion FY05
Labor, Health and Human Services and Education
Appropriations Bill, also known as the Omnibus
spending bill, which Congress must pass to
prevent a government shutdown. The add-on circumvents
the normal legislative process by forcing into
law the provisions of a bill that the Senate
has not passed, the Abortion Non-Discrimination
Act. Championed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee,
the bill was passed by the House under the
sponsorship of Rep. Dave Weldon, a Republican
from Florida. In its new incarnation, it is
called the "Weldon Amendment."
The National Right to Life Committee applauded
the Bush White House for urging inclusion of
the add-on amendment in a letter on Nov. 17.
"This is an outrage," Senator Barbara
Boxer, a Democrat from California, said on
the floor of Congress on Nov. 20. The Weldon
Amendment will have "very many adverse
consequences for millions and millions of women,"
said Boxer, causing women who have life-threatening
pregnancies or need treatment in hospital emergency
rooms to be denied care. "I feel for the
women in this country because of the way they
are treated in this bill," she said.
The bill will return to the House of Representatives
for a perfunctory vote today, and then be presented
for signature by President Bush. It takes effect
immediately and lasts for the 2005 funding
Although Sen. Boxer secured an agreement to hold
hearings in the Senate to repeal the provision,
it cannot be removed without the agreement
of the House of Representatives, which is unlikely.
Practical Impact Broad, Confusing
The practical impact of the legislation is unclear
because of sweeping and ambiguous language.
"It's so murky," said Eve Gartner,
an attorney with the Planned Parenthood Federation
of America, located in New York City. "We
don't know how it will be enforced and how
the states will respond."
The amendment declares that no local, state or
federal agency or program can "subject"
a health care professional or health care entity
to "discrimination" because it "does
not provide, pay for, provide coverage for,
or refer for abortions."
No definition of discrimination is provided.
Already 45 states allow individual doctors
to opt-out of providing abortion services,
provisions that are often called "conscience
clauses." In 22 states, these clauses
are specifically keyed to "religious or
moral" beliefs. Twenty-one states allow
health care institutions to opt-out. A prior
federal law, the Church Amendment, states that
federal grantees are not "required"
to perform abortions for religious or moral
reasons. The majority of states, however, will
override any opt-outs when a women's life is
But the Weldon Amendment, which applies to every
state, allows health care professionals to
opt-out for any reason, including in cases
in which the woman's life is at risk or in
which the pregnancy is a result of a rape.
The amendment "radically expands" the
conscience clauses, according to the National
Women's Law Center, a Washington D.C. advocacy
group that refers to the provision as a "refusal
clause." The right to refuse abortions
is extended for the first time to insurance
companies, health maintenance organizations
and other "organizations." Refusals
could be based on financial or any other consideration.
Several possible pictures arise of the potential
impact. The Weldon amendment, for example,
will prevent enforcement of a rule that requires
family planning programs under the federal
Title X to direct patients who want referrals
to qualified abortion providers, according
to the National Women's Law Center. Anti-abortion
crisis pregnancy centers which refuse abortion
referrals might now be eligible for Title X
In eliminating the application of federal and
state laws that require emergency abortion
services in life-threatening cases, states
such as Iowa could also be prevented from enforcing
parts of its patients' bills of rights, also
according to the National Women's Law Center.
Iowa patients' rights for health care law allows
providers to discuss treatment options with
patients regardless of the health plan's position
on options. Under the Weldon Amendment, health
care organizations who are opposed to abortion
could tell nurses and doctors in their employ
that they cannot refer to abortion providers,
stripping the state law of its meaning.
States could not require Medicaid managed care
programs to provide abortions to low-income
patients, already limited in most places to
cases of rape, incest and life endangerment.
Further, because abortion itself is not defined
in the amendment, pharmacists may no longer
be required to fill birth control or "morning
after" pill prescriptions. Some anti-abortion
pharmacists claim, contrary to mainstream medicine,
that some birth control and the "morning
after" pill are equivalent to an abortion
by potentially interfering with a fertilized
egg in the hours after conception. Refusals
to fill such prescriptions could be immunized
from state challenge. Similarly, state laws
passed in California, New Mexico and elsewhere
to ensure that emergency rooms help rape survivors
access the "morning after" pill could
also be rendered moot.
The Weldon Amendment may also undercut the efforts
of states to protect women's access to abortion
when community hospitals merge or are bought
out by institutions that ban abortion services.
Problems have arisen in the past with Catholic
healthcare systems, which enforce religious
directives prohibiting abortion. In mergers
with local hospitals, some states have stepped
in to prevent the elimination of reproductive
services in the community. "We worry that
state Attorneys General could be chilled and
afraid to raise complaints because they might
worry that they are in danger of losing the
state's money," said Rachel Laser, senior
counsel at the National Women's Law Center.
"The Weldon Amendment is a direct attack
on the ability of women to make decisions about
abortion and other reproductive health care
measures in safety and security and according
to their own conscience and their own needs,"
said Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president and
chief executive officer of the Washington,
D.C.-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive
Choice. "This is a significant milestone
for far-right Christian groups that are working
to impose their religious beliefs on the entire
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist
in New York who writes frequently about reproductive
For more information:
The Library of Congress-- - The FY05 Labor,
Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations
Bill [Adobe PDF format]: - http://thomas.loc.gov/home/omni2005/h4818divf.pdf
<< Womens Enews -- 12/6/04 >>
to a friend
Us Newsletters News