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Women in Congress Issue Ultimatum on Abortion : Health care: Caucus members say they will pull votes for Clinton’s reform plan if pregnancy services are cut.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gearing up for a new and bitter abortion battle, women lawmakers served notice Tuesday that they will not support the Clinton Administration’s health care legislation if the White House backs away from plans to include abortion coverage in the health benefits it would guarantee every American.

With some polls showing strong public opposition to including abortion in the health plan, some congressional leaders have warned the White House that the emotional issue could imperil the entire health care package.

Yet about a dozen women lawmakers from the House and Senate warned President Clinton at a press conference Tuesday that he risks losing their votes and the votes of many of their female colleagues unless he stands firm on including abortion.

“Women’s health must not be negotiated away during the legislative process,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Congressional Women’s Caucus’ Pro-Choice Task Force. “Inclusion of pregnancy-related services in the final plan will be absolutely critical in securing broad-based support among members of the women’s caucus.” The six female senators and all 48 women in the House are members of the caucus.

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“I would never support a plan that took away a basic right from half our population,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Abortion rights groups are concerned about what they see as mixed signals on the issue from the Administration.

In the initial 239-page draft of the health plan that is unofficially circulating in Washington, the White House deals with the abortion issue indirectly, saying only that “pregnancy-related services” would be provided. That is the same language that many private insurance policies use to cover abortion.

However, the Administration has been vague on specifics. Some officials have indicated that the decision of whether and under what conditions to provide abortion as a benefit could be left to the states or the individual health-insurance purchasing alliances that would be created under the plan.

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More worrisome to abortion rights advocates, high-ranking White House policy-makers reportedly also have indicated that the Administration might be willing to abandon abortion coverage entirely, if that is the price of winning congressional approval of the overall plan.

“I’m not at all happy with the signals they are sending,” said Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League. “They are confusing, they are vague and they are not reassuring about the commitment the Administration has made to cover reproductive health.”

Abortion foes, however, said that the Administration is being deliberate in its ambiguity, because it knows that it will ignite a controversy that could sink the entire health care proposal. “The White House believes it’s going to be a big problem if the public realizes what a dramatic expansion of abortion this would be,” said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s largest anti-abortion group.

To exclude abortion would deny coverage of a procedure currently paid for by many private insurance policies. Moreover, it would undercut Clinton’s longstanding commitment to abortion rights.

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Yet strong majorities in Congress, bowing to the wishes of voters, have since the 1970s prohibited federal funding of abortion in most instances. This means that federal Medicaid funds cannot be used to pay for poor women to have abortions, nor is it covered under insurance policies for federal workers.

As recently as June, the House voted by a 77-vote margin to uphold the Medicaid ban. A fight on the issue is expected on the Senate floor, possibly next week, after a Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted Tuesday to strip the ban from its version of the bill.

Congressional Women’s Caucus members said that they also want to assure that women’s health issues are being given fair coverage in the health plan. They noted, for example, that the plan would cover Pap smears only for women considered at risk for cervical cancer and mammograms only for those older than 50.

By comparison, there is no limit on screening for male diseases, such as prostate cancer, they noted.

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“You fund what you fear,” Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said.

The lawmakers also introduced legislation to increase funding of research on a wide variety of diseases, such as breast cancer and osteoporosis, that generally affect women.

The concerns over abortion arose as the White House continues to prepare for the official unveiling of the health care package on Sept. 22. The Administration today will issue new antitrust enforcement policy statements to clarify what the health care industry claims is legal uncertainty over how far companies can go in joint action to cut health care costs.

Among areas expected to be covered are joint ventures by hospitals and by physician networks, hospital mergers and repealing the exemption from antitrust laws currently enjoyed by health insurers.

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Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.

* RELATED GRAPHIC, STORIES: A5, A6, A7


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