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Senate Acts to Limit Abortion Coverage to Rape, Incest Cases

August 06, 1995|WARREN VIETH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led Senate, rebuffing emotional appeals from abortion rights advocates, voted Saturday to bar federal employee health insurance plans from covering abortions except in cases involving rape, incest or life-threatening complications.

Executing an abrupt about-face during a rare weekend session, the Senate first voted to kill a proposal already endorsed by the House banning abortion coverage for federal employees. But the prohibition was quickly reinstated by a vote of 50 to 44 when anti-abortion forces offered to include the exception for rape and incest.

The Senate action--its first test vote on abortion rights since Republicans took control of Congress in January--is another setback for Democrats and GOP moderates who hoped the Senate would reverse some of the more conservative legislative proposals adopted in the House.

Restricting the ability of federal employees to obtain abortions is but one in a series of proposals pushed by anti-abortion forces and their congressional allies. Others include a provision allowing states to deny Medicaid funding for abortions, a ban on privately funded abortions in overseas military hospitals and a measure barring international family planning organizations from using their own funds to pay for abortions.

"This is an assault on a woman's right to choose," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), an abortion rights advocate and presidential candidate who opposed the new restrictions. "In a series of increments, there's been a virtual meltdown of that right."

But supporters of the federal employee provision, led by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), argued that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize abortions provided through government-financed health care plans.

"I don't think abortion should be a fringe benefit provided by the government," Nickles said. "This is not an issue about a woman's right to choose. This is about taxpayer dollars being used to destroy an innocent human life."

The Senate provision, along with a stronger version approved by the House, would reinstate a prohibition that took effect during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations. It was lifted by Congress in 1993 after President Clinton took office.

The policy debate affects about 1.2 million women of reproductive age who work for the federal government and rely on federal health plans for their medical care. Under current law, they are allowed to participate in health plans that cover abortions.

Although taxpayer funds are used to help provide the health coverage, opponents of the restrictions say the payments should be viewed as part of a federal employee's total compensation package and not as a direct subsidy of abortions.

The House version of the ban, contained in a bill appropriating $25 billion to the Treasury Department, Postal Service and other federal agencies, would bar federal employee health plans from financing abortions unless the mother's life is in danger.

When the spending bill was brought up for consideration on the Senate floor on Saturday morning, abortion rights advocates introduced an amendment to strip the House ban from the bill. After an emotional floor debate addressing the history of abortion rights since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, they prevailed by a vote of 52 to 41.

But the Senate reversed itself when Nickles stepped forward with a softer version of the ban that would allow health plans to finance abortions in rape and incest cases. One of the lawmakers who sought the exception was Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who said his wife was sexually attacked several years ago only eight blocks from the Capitol.

"Something is radically wrong if someone were to say to my wife, 'You carry that baby to term,' " Conrad said.

Nickles' milder prohibition was adopted by a vote of 50 to 44.

Although differences in the House and Senate versions of the spending bill will have to be worked out in conference after Congress returns from its summer recess in September, it appears likely some version of the coverage restriction will become law.

In a separate vote, the Senate rejected a House move to abolish the White House Office of National Drug Policy headed by national drug czar Lee P. Brown. On a voice vote, the Senate restored $8 million in funding for Brown's office.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who offered the amendment to keep the office on the books, said he is disappointed by a lack of notable gains in the war on drugs, but thinks Congress should review the office's mission and staffing more closely before deciding to shut it down.

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