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Rep. Dale Kildee (AP/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta, file)

Abortion debate

Healthcare | Pro-lifers differ on their interpretation of abortion provisions in the pending healthcare bill

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, 80-year-old Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., a pro-life Catholic facing a vote on healthcare reform, said, "Certainly at this point in my life I'm not going to change my mind and support abortion, and I'm not going to risk my eternal salvation."

Kildee, however, along with pro-life Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio, believe they can in good conscience support the Senate healthcare bill.

On Wednesday, Network-a Catholic social justice lobbying organization-came out in favor of healthcare reform. A letter from the group to members of Congress, which was signed by 55 organization heads representing 59,000 nuns, stated, "Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions."

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The Catholic Health Association also favors the Senate bill, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) pointed out that the bill does provide federal funding for abortion.

When asked how the two groups can make such contradictory claims, Kildee replied, "They're wrong."

The two sides agree that the Senate bill would prohibit discrimination against qualified health plans that refuse to provide abortion coverage. Both agree that the Senate bill would keep intact federal laws on conscience protection. Both agree that the Senate bill would allow states to prohibit abortion coverage on the exchange. Both agree that at least one of the Office of Personnel Management multi-state plans would not cover abortion, and that those who want abortion coverage under a federally subsidized plan would have to pay a separate premium using private funds.

In fact, Timothy S. Jost, legal and health policy expert at the Washington and Lee School of Law, said the Senate bill is "essentially as pro-life as the House bill" and in some cases more so since it provides $250 million to support pregnant women and teen parents while expanding the adoption tax credit. Jost contends that the special private premium for abortion coverage will actually make such provisions more rare than it is now with employer health plans, meaning that consumers could choose a plan that doesn't cover abortion.

However, the NRLC noted that people could also choose a plan that does cover abortion-once an impossibility for any plan regulated by the Office of Personnel Management. The NRLC and Jost debated whether the $7 billion going to community health centers (CHCs) can go to abortions, with the NRLC saying that the funds are outside the scope of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for elective abortions, while Jost responded that any money for CHCs would be mixed in with other appropriations that are covered by the Hyde Amendment, ensuring that the funds wouldn't go to abortion coverage.

In a letter dated Friday, the NRLC added that people might accidentally pay for abortion coverage, or have to choose between paying for abortion coverage and choosing the plan that works best for them. The group said the bill is riddled with loopholes (for instance, the government cannot require health plans to cover abortion as an "essential health benefit" but could require them to cover abortions under a different rubric) and that some of the pro-life provisions are due to expire, meaning pro-lifers will have to fight for them each year.

It seems the debate is almost at an end. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has closed the door on any further abortion negotiations, telling ABC News, "This bill is about healthcare and not about abortion. There will be no further changes in the bill."

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