WASHINGTON — A last-minute compromise that swung a half-dozen anti-abortion Democrats behind President Barack Obama's health care bill – virtually ensuring its passage – failed to placate outside activists on either side of the issue, and drew derision from Republicans.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., leader of the anti-abortion bloc, said he was satisfied with an executive order issued by Obama affirming prohibitions in current law and in the health legislation against taxpayer money going to abortions.
"Make no doubt about it. There will be no public funds for abortion," Stupak said in announcing the agreement Sunday ahead of a vote on the landmark health care bill.
The National Right to Life Committee quickly issued a scathing statement disputing Stupak's claim.
"The executive order promised by President Obama was issued for political effect. It changes nothing," the group said. "It does not correct any of the serious pro-abortion provisions in the bill."
The powerful Catholic bishops weren't on board, either.
"Without seeing the details of the executive order, our conclusion has been that an executive order cannot override or change the central problems in the statute. Those need a legislative fix," Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops' conference's Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said in an interview.
The bishops contend that the legislation before the House Sunday allows federal funding of abortion.
The bill tries to maintain a strict separation between taxpayer funds and private premiums that would pay for abortion coverage. No health plan would be required to offer coverage for the procedure. In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.
Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through a new purchasing exchange. Exceptions would be made for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.
Abortion foes contend that the separation of funds is an accounting gimmick, and in reality taxpayers would be paying for abortion because health plans that cover abortion would be getting federal money.
Obama's executive order, the product of frenzied 11th-hour negotiations involving Stupak's group and members of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, orders federal officials to develop guidelines to carry out the segregation of private and public funds. The order also sets out a mechanism aiming to ensure that community health centers cannot use federal funds for abortions, another concern for the Stupak group.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., an abortion-rights supporter, said she thinks current law and the language in the health care bill go too far in restricting access to abortion. But DeGette said she doesn't have a problem with the executive order because "it doesn't change anything."
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said it was "unacceptable that a pro-choice president has put his imprimatur on a highly restrictive and unjust anti-choice measure.
"It is tragic that, under a pro-choice administration and a Democratic majority in Congress, harmful anti-choice policy will be the price American women will pay for health care reform," Northup said in comments echoed by other abortion-rights groups.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed the executive order and said, "Make no mistake, a 'yes' vote on the Democrats' health care bill is a vote for taxpayer-funded abortions."
Stupak said he would have preferred to change the law itself, as sought by the bishops and others, but that it wasn't possible because the votes weren't there in the Senate.
"We cannot get more than 45 pro-life votes in the Senate. The bishops are right, statutory law is better than an executive order. We can't get there," Stupak said. "So what do you have, nothing? Or do you want the same executive order that has the force of law? I'll take the executive order."