Senate, Signaling a Key Shift, Backs Medicaid Abortions for Rape, Incest

Times Staff Writer

Signaling a major shift on the abortion issue, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to permit Medicaid-funded abortions for the victims of rape and incest, provided victims report the crimes immediately and states agree to accept such funds.

Democrats and Republicans joined in the 73-19 vote, marking the first time since 1981 that the Senate has approved a liberalization of abortion laws. Currently, federal law prohibits Medicaid funding of abortions except when a mother's life is in danger.

The controversial measure, which was approved with virtually no debate, was tacked onto a $140-billion appropriations bill for health and human services.

Passes on 80-16 Vote

The massive spending bill, covering most of the nation's social spending, was approved, 80 to 16, at the end of a confusing day of parliamentary maneuvers, reversals and last-minute amendments.

However, in a blow to gay rights groups, the Senate also approved an amendment that would ban federal funds for AIDS education from going to any groups which "promote or encourage homosexuality" or use words stating that homosexuality is "normal, natural or healthy."

Advocates Hail Vote

Pro-abortion advocates hailed the Senate's abortion vote as a political victory, one which could "begin to turn the tide in Congress on this issue," according to Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.).

But, the provision faces an uncertain political future. President Reagan has threatened to veto the measure, saying it violates "right to life" precepts. And, even before it reaches Reagan's desk, the measure must be approved by a conference of Senate and House members.

The bill passed by the House does not expand eligibility for Medicaid abortions beyond what is permitted in current law.

Still, the lopsided Senate vote indicates that "sentiment on this issue has begun to shift, both in Washington and across the nation," said Weicker, who predicted that Congress might be able to override a presidential veto. Shortly after the vote, however, a White House aide said Reagan would have to study the measure more fully before making a decision.

Symbolic Measure

Weicker also conceded that the measure, if it becomes law, would be largely symbolic. In 1979, the last year Medicaid funds were allowed to be used for abortions for rape and incest victims, there were only 72 such cases, according to a Weicker aide.

The controversial amendment was authored by Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), who described himself as an opponent of most abortions. But he said the exemption for victims of rape and incest "was a matter of good sense" and constituted a "middle ground" that could unite both sides of the volatile issue.

On the vote, some of the Senate's most vocal abortion opponents, such as Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), joined with pro-choice members, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), to support Exon's amendment. Many Republicans voted for the amendment because of the provision allowing states to turn down funds for such abortions, according to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

"I think it's a stupid amendment in a way . . . because it takes you in one direction, but pulls you back in another," said Hatch, who voted for the proposal.

No Vote Since 1980

Federal law permitted Medicaid-funded abortions that were "medically necessary" up until 1980, when Congress voted to toughen the law. Since then, the Senate has not voted on the touchy issue, preferring to leave the existing ban on most abortions in the law.

The appropriations bill, which includes $1.2 billion for AIDS research, education, prevention and treatment, drew numerous amendments on family planning, abortion and AIDS.

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