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Health Care / HEALTH CARE

House Passes Abortion Bill

Bill Not Headed Anywhere

photo of Meghan McCarthy
October 13, 2011

The House passed a controversial abortion bill Thursday on a near party-line vote, reigniting the chamber’s political battle over women’s health.

The bill, which passed 251-172, would prevent coverage of abortion services by insurance plans on state exchanges that receive federal subsidies. It would also strengthen conscience protections for hospitals and medical providers. Fifteen Democrats voted in support of the bill.

It’s no surprise the bill from Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., easily passed the House, but it isn’t likely to get much further in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Republicans in the upper chamber have not forced a floor vote on any abortion legislation passed by the House this year. President Obama also threatened on Wednesday to veto the legislation, saying that it “intrudes on women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care.”

 

That hasn’t dissuaded Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who sponsored a bill earlier this year to make a federal ban on funding abortion permanent law.

“There’s always hope. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it takes several years,” Smith said in an interview. “This is an issue of profound consequence. We will never quit.”

Democrats took to the House floor to criticize Republicans for not working to create jobs. They also said the bill would expand conscience protections to medical professionals and hospitals beyond the law known as EMTALA, which requires hospitals with emergency rooms to stabilize any patient who comes through their doors.

 “Now let me tell you something. My story is pretty well known now. But I was pregnant, I was miscarrying, I was bleeding. If I had to go from one hospital to the next trying to find one emergency room that would take me in, who knows if I would even be here today,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on the floor of the House. “The time has come for us to stop taking up this issue over and over again this year and do something the American people really care about. They want jobs,” Speier said.

Smith dismissed criticism that stronger conscience protections could endanger women’s lives, saying the law requiring hospitals with emergency rooms to treat sick patients would remain intact.

Smith cited a 2009 case at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City in which a nurse said she was forced to participate in a late-term abortion under threat of losing her job and license, saying it demonstrated the need for stronger conscience protections in federal law.

“The fear of it keeps some people from going into OB-GYN,” Smith said.

Planned Parenthood rallied supporters to call Capitol Hill and oppose the bill, generating more than 5,000 phone calls by Thursday afternoon.

“This bill is a collection of dangerous ideas that will undermine women’s health,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement.  “Most devastating, the bill eliminates protections for patients seeking care in emergency circumstances, and would allow a hospital to deny lifesaving abortion care to a woman, even if a doctor deems it necessary.”

The bill would also change the delicate agreement reached over abortion coverage in the health-insurance exchanges established by last year’s health insurance overhaul.

The Pitts bill would prohibit the provision of abortions by any exchange insurance companies receiving federal money, even if the insured pay for the coverage separately. Republicans say this would protect people who want a specific insurance plan but don’t want to pay into one that covers abortions.

Democrats contend that the provision would ultimately lead every insurance plan on a state exchange to drop abortion coverage.

The bill enjoyed support from more Democrats than usual, after House Democratic leadership choose not to whip against the bill.

The following Democrats support the legislation: Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., Rep. Dan Boren, D-Ok., Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Tx., Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ar., and Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C.

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