03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stupak-Pitts Is Not Worth Killing Health Care Bill

Cross-posted with The Hill.

I am a pro-choice liberal Democrat. I believe the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1977, which forbids the expenditure of federal tax dollars to fund abortions, directly or indirectly, is unfair and wrong. It discriminates against poor women. But it is passed every year, since it needs to be re-authorized each year as part of the appropriations process. I haven't noticed the vocal opponents of Stupak-Hyde leading opposition each year to re-authorization of the Hyde Amendment.

In fact, there are many, many people who believe abortion is immoral, that life begins at conception. These sincere people understandably do not want their tax dollars, directly or indirectly, paying for a procedure they consider to be the taking of an innocent life. Many who share this belief are liberal Democrats on major economic and social issues, including many of the 64 Democrats (more than 25% of all House Democrats) who voted last Saturday for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa). The Amendment passed, with Republican support, by a 240-194 vote.

Stupak-Pitts is essentially based on the Hyde Amendment principle. It prohibits (1) any federal funds to be used under the House Health Care bill to pay for abortions; and (2) any individuals who receive federal subsidies for health care under the bill -- those families of four with income of $88,000/year or less -- from buying an insurance plan on the state public exchanges that covers abortion.

Under the new health insurance system if it is enacted, all those who do not receive health insurance from employers must purchase insurance on state insurance exchanges. But since state insurance exchanges will receive federal funds to cover administrative costs, some abortion-rights advocates argue that under Stupak-Pitts, women who do not receive federal subsidies still may not purchase an insurance policy listed on the exchange, even entirely using their own private funds, if the policy includes abortion coverage as part of the regular policy coverage.

Supporters of the amendment, such as the National Right to Life Committee, dispute that claim, however, and it appears they may be right. According to, an independent analyst, insurers may offer comprehensive plans that include abortion coverage or supplemental plans for abortion specifically. But insurers must keep these plans separate from those purchased by people who accept federal credits. Insurance companies would not be allowed to pay for abortions with money they earn from selling tax-subsidized policies.

So the key question is: Should those who oppose Stupak-Pitts vote down the entire health care bill for this reason alone? Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) claims to have 40 or more Democrats committed to voting against any final health care bill reported by the Senate-House conference committee if it contains Stupak-Pitts. If she is correct, then that is the end of any hope of passing a national health insurance bill. I hope Rep. DeGette and others change their minds.

As President Obama told ABC News, "You know, I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill. And we're not working to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions."

President Obama is right. When and if the final conference bill reaches the House floor, I am hoping Rep. DeGette and others will look at the big picture and ask themselves: Would I vote against this bill if I or a member of my family had no health insurance and my family faced bankruptcy in case of serious illness or were forced to depend on public hospital emergency rooms for basic health care?

If the answer is, no - then that should be their final, if unhappy, reason to support the bill and, at long last, enact national health insurance and mandatory coverage for virtually all Americans.


"This piece appeared today, November 12, 2009, in Mr. Davis's regular weekly column in The Hill newspaper, "Politics and Counsel."

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics is Destroying America.

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