WASHINGTON — In a last-minute compromise seeking to secure a majority vote for a healthcare overhaul, House Democratic leaders agreed Saturday to essentially exclude abortion coverage from their bill except for insurance policies paid exclusively with private money.
The amendment, offered just prior to the vote on the healthcare bill, passed 240 to 194.
The compromise won immediate support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which urged Catholics to "lend their full-throated support" to the Democrats' healthcare bill.
"The bishops' stamp of approval means that this bill is unambiguously pro-life and we will vigorously oppose those who suggest otherwise," the conference said in a statement Saturday.
In a letter to Congress, the National Right to Life Committee described the vote on the amendment as "the most important House roll call on federal funding of abortion" in more than a decade.
The long-standing ban on federal funding of abortions -- with exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake -- applies mostly to patients on Medicaid and to workers who receive health benefits through the federal government. Insurance policies sold to others have been free to offer abortion coverage, and many do.
The bills pending in Congress would provide federal subsidies to low- and middle-income Americans to help them buy insurance policies. Millions of people would qualify for the subsidies.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had included in the House bill a complicated formula that would require plans to use only private funds to reimburse providers for abortion services.
Antiabortion advocates rejected Pelosi's approach, arguing that covering abortions through any policies that are subsidized by the government would violate the law.
The compromise amendment, offered Saturday by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), in effect bans abortion coverage by all plans that are purchased using taxpayer dollars. Abortions could still be obtained by policyholders who pay their entire premiums without government assistance or by individuals receiving federal subsidies in the event of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life.
Abortion rights advocates say the result would be a "de facto ban" on abortion in insurance plans sold under the new exchanges that would be created in the bill, because so many of the customers using the exchanges would be getting subsidies.
Making such a big concession to antiabortion Democrats was difficult for Pelosi, a lifelong advocate of abortion rights. But she urged her colleagues to go along rather than risk defeat of the landmark healthcare bill.
"I really do think this is one of those Franklin Delano Roosevelt moments," said Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who opposed the Stupak amendment but voted for the bill in the end. "I would love this to be the Jim McGovern bill, but this is the best we can get."