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Jane Ahlin, Published October 11 2009

Abortion, health care reform arguments get very peculiar

California Rep. Lois Capps, a pro-choice Democrat, did not thrill the pro-choice community with her bid to remove the abortion issue from the health care debate. Her idea was that in order to keep abortion from becoming a red herring that could sink health care reform, her Democratic – and, hopefully, Republican – colleagues in both the House and the Senate would see the wisdom in maintaining status quo on the issue.

The equation was simple: Private plans that offer abortion coverage would continue to offer abortion coverage, but insurance companies issuing federally subsidized policies to low-income Americans in the proposed “exchanges” could not use federal dollars in abortion coverage, other than in the exceptions already allowed in the oft-cited Hyde amendment: rape, incest, or threat to the life of the woman.

Capps was thorough. Insurance companies participating in the exchanges could not be forced to include abortion in their private plans, nor could they be prohibited from including it. To satisfy individuals who object either to getting insurance from a plan that offers abortion coverage or from a plan that does not, all regions of the country would be required to have at least one provider reflecting each sentiment. She also made sure that abortion coverage could not be a mandated benefit as part of the minimum benefit package.

Capps was so thorough that even the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service affirmed her amendment “preserves the status quo in federal abortion policy.”

So now, the big question: What in that compromise – so carefully crafted and straight-forward in its intent to defuse the abortion issue before it fired up – was not good enough for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.?

You see, instead of standing firm on the Senate version of the Capps amendment in the Senate Finance Committee, Conrad voted for Sen. Orrin Hatch’s,

R-Utah, amendment, and that vote is perplexing. The Hatch amendment sought to prohibit federal subsidies from going to any plan that covers abortion beyond the Hyde exceptions, even though no federal dollars would be involved. By effectively keeping any private health plan that covers abortion from participating in the exchanges, the Hatch Amendment dramatically would change the picture. (Note the word private: These are plans women and their families pay for and plans insurance companies offer because they make a profit and satisfy their customers.) In short, a legal, highly regulated medical service that has been covered likely would be forced out.

Actually, given the section of the Hatch amendment proposing that women with private plans could pay extra for “abortion riders,” Conrad’s vote is dumbfounding. The abortion rider provision illustrates a patronizing and cynical attitude toward women that has its roots in right-wing screed. Women choosing such an insurance rider would have to expect to have abortions. (Probably more than one … yippee!)

Of all the nasty myths surrounding the abortion issue, none is uglier than the idea that women carelessly and wantonly get pregnant and then fit their abortions in between getting their nails done and going to the casino. Reality is different. Women do not plan to have problem pregnancies any more than people plan to have appendicitis or kidney disease or, for that matter, impotence. Problem pregnancies are unplanned and often are devastating and involve other medical concerns. Certainly, all are personal and all require medical care.

An argument against the Capps amendment is that money is money, and private money cannot be segregated from federal money. Since 17 states already cover abortion as part of their Medicaid plans by segregating state money from federal money, the argument doesn’t hold up.

More likely in Conrad’s situation, his vote was affected by threats from Democratic senators aligned with the pro-life community. So let’s consider that reasoning for a moment. If, in the end, senators voted against health care reform over the abortion issue, they would have to explain to their states that they obstructed health care reform because neither the pro-choice community nor the pro-life community lost or gained anything. No matter which side you take, that’s a strange argument to make.

Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. E-mail janeahlin@yahoo.com.