BANGOR, Maine — Bangor-area religious leaders teamed up Friday to protest the inclusion of language restricting access to abortions in the developing federal health care reform legislation.
Joined at a press conference by representatives of organizations including the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Family Planning Association and the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, the clergy spoke against abortion restrictions already included in legislation approved by the U.S. House and similar language expected to be proposed shortly for the Senate version of the bill.
The House bill amendment proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., would prohibit many private health insurance policies from paying for abortions unless a separate policy rider is purchased specifically for that coverage. The restriction would apply to any insurance company that participates in a new marketing system of insurance “exchanges” and accepts federal premium subsidies for lower-income enrollees. Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are expected to submit similar language for the Senate bill.
Stupak says the measure is simply an extension of existing restrictions against using taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and he says it was essential to garnering conservative support for health care reform in the House.
“Without the votes of 41 Democratic Pro-Life supporters of my amendment, health care reform never would have passed the U.S. House of Representatives,” he states on his Web site.
Bills approved by the House and the Senate will be merged into a final version for approval by the full Congress.
The gathering of the Maine Interfaith Council for Reproductive Choices was aimed at urging Maine’s two Republican U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to vote against the anticipated Nelson-Hatch amendment.
Both senators have indicated they support existing restrictions against using public dollars to fund abortion, but do not endorse the proposed extension into private plans that accept subsidies.
The Rev. Mark Doty of the Hammond Street Congregational Church called the effort to tighten abortion restrictions “an enormous step backwards” for women.
Federal law already disallows the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, so programs such as Medicaid, for example, do not pay for the termination of a pregnancy. The new measures would prohibit plans from covering abortion if they accept federal subsidies.
Women who want to purchase separate abortion coverage would have to ask for and pay for the extra coverage, which Doty called a violation of privacy.
Lower-income women who are more likely to use the new income-based subsidy system would be most affected, he said, putting the population of women most in need of health care reform at a disadvantage.
Rabbi Darah Lerner of Congregation Beth El in Bangor said that “no single religious voice” can speak for all Americans and that women must be free individually to apply the tenets of their belief systems when it comes to health care and abortion.
Lerner noted that access to abortion is protected by the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The Stupak amendment and the pending Nelson-Hatch amendment would unfairly exclude abortion from the overarching coverage of women’s health care, she said, and create a tiered system of health coverage that provides fewer benefits for poor women.
“It would be like excluding prostate cancer from men’s health care coverage unless they purchase a separate rider,” Lerner said.
The Rev. Mark Worth of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine said many mainstream religious denominations have taken a pro-choice stance on abortion rights, including the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutherans, the Quakers, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews.
“As a religious person, I believe that in order to be compassionate, fair and ethical, we must allow a woman, in consultation with her doctor, to make her own decision about the deeply personal issue of abortion,” he said.
Asked to comment, Snowe said Friday that she supports the existing restrictions on using public funds for abortion but does not support further restrictions.
“My position on this sensitive issue has always been clear,” she said in a prepared statement. “As a member of the Finance Committee’s Group of Six health reform negotiations this summer, I helped to draft legislation that maintained current law. And the bill presently being debated by the Senate maintains that language that I will continue to support.”
Collins also said current law does enough to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion, and that the language of the Stupak amendment goes too far.
“The bill currently being debated in the Senate makes it very clear that federal funds cannot be used to pay for abortion,” Collins said. “That is the current law and that is what I support.”