Hatch files abortion amendment to Senate health reform bill

Politics » Even supporters predict defeat of abortion provision; but debate could reignite when health reform bill needs votes.
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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and a Democratic colleague filed a highly anticipated health-reform amendment Monday that would bar any federally subsidized insurance plan from covering elective abortions.

The issue of abortion coverage within health insurance exchanges has turned into one of the largest roadblocks for reform, inflaming an already intense partisan debate.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure Tuesday and even Hatch expects it to fail. But the amendment, which is also sponsored by Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, isn't expected to be the final word on the topic.

The Democrats need Nelson's support to pass the overall health reform bill and he has threatened to buck his party if they don't include tougher abortion restrictions.

The Nelson-Hatch amendment would bring the Senate bill in line with the House health reform proposal, which would not allow any government-run plan to offer elective abortion coverage. The amendment would also bar anyone getting a federal subsidy from selecting a plan sold in the exchange that would pay for abortion services.

Those who use their own funds could buy such a plan, or what is known as an insurance rider, specifically for abortion coverage. This amendment would not impact people who get their insurance through their employer.

Hatch pushed for the tougher abortion language in committee debates earlier this year to no avail. The amendment would need the support of 60 votes and it is unlikely that 20 Democrats would join the 40 Republicans to pass such a proposal.

Democrats argue that their bill already bars federal money from paying for abortions because it requires insurers to separate federal subsidies from the premiums paid by customers. Under their bill, only premiums could be used to cover elective abortions.

Abortion-rights groups such as the Center for Reproductive Rights have attempted to fight off the abortion amendment, calling it "an intolerable threat to women's health" that will result in women losing the abortion coverage they now have.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has doggedly lobbied the Senate to support a total ban on abortion coverage in any plan that takes federal money. Three bishops, including Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, sent a letter to senators urging them to back the Nelson-Hatch amendment.

In their letter, they argue that any bill without the stringent abortion ban, which is nearly identical to the policy already imposed on other federal health programs, "is not true health care reform."