WASHINGTON-For the first time in over 10 years, local funds may be used for abortions in the District of Columbia. A pending appropriations bill that covers the district's budget has stripped out prohibitions on the funding of abortions, though using federal funds for that purpose is still banned. Because Washington, D.C., is not a state, the district must go through Congress to have its laws and budget approved.
A Democrat-controlled Congress placed a ban on the federal funding of abortions-except in cases of rape, incest, or the endangerment of the life of the mother-when it passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976. Other similar appropriations amendments followed in the years since, like the Dornan Amendment, which passed in 1988. In the Clinton years, Congress periodically bumped out some of these "pro-life riders" governing Washington, but bans resurfaced in 1996 under a Republican Congress.
The number of legal abortions in the district has dropped from 6,734 in 1996 to 2,518 in 2005, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the D.C. budget, removed the pro-life riders and explained that the committee wants to give Washington "more autonomy in managing its fiscal affairs, particularly in deciding how local funds are spent." President Obama had removed the riders in his budget as well.
NARAL Pro-Choice America commended the move as clearing an "important hurdle."
"The abortion rider has created a severe hardship for low-income women in the district," wrote D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in a letter to the House Appropriations Committee.
On Tuesday, Reps. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., and Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn. tried to add the Dornan amendment to the bill, which would block the funding of abortions in Washington, but their effort failed by a 26-33 vote. Four other Democrats on the committee joined Davis to support the measure: Reps Marion Berry of Arkansas, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, and John Murtha of Pennsylvania.
"Elections have consequences," Tiahrt told me simply.
The Senate version of the spending bill removes the ban as well. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. introduced an amendment of his own in the Senate Appropriations Committee that would have reinstituted the ban, but that was defeated by a 13-15 vote. Two Democrats-Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas-voted with Brownback. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considered pro-life but opposed Brownback's amendment. Since Democrats have a 60-seat majority, the argument against the funding of abortions is unlikely to gain momentum.
In February, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers composed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi decrying just such an eventuality (see "Mexico City, Part II). The 180 pro-life politicians saw red flags after Congress allocated federal funds to the UN Population Fund, which the coalition members said has been complicit with forced abortions in countries like China.
But Pelosi has been hesitant to interfere in the district's politics, supporting full voting rights for the city in Congress and more recently allowing a D.C. Council decision recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions to stand.
"We have a constitutional requirement to oversee the District of Columbia," responded Tiahrt. "It's not meddling; it's doing our job."
The spending bill also allows for a referendum in the district on the legalization of marijuana and ends a ban on funding of a local needle exchange program.