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Senate Upholds Medicaid Ban on Abortion Fees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a setback for the Clinton Administration that could affect national health care legislation, the Senate voted, 59 to 40, Tuesday to continue the long-standing ban on federal payments for most abortions under the Medicaid program.

The so-called Hyde Amendment, through which the ban was instituted 16 years ago, was upheld by a surprisingly large margin, despite pleas from five women Democratic senators that the payments be restored. With support from President Clinton, they argued that the ban effectively discriminates against Medicaid patients who cannot afford the cost of terminating their pregnancies.

Proponents of the amendment argued, however, that federal taxpayers opposed to abortion should not be required to help pay for the procedure. It has been estimated that if the ban were lifted, 400,000 more abortions would be performed annually at a cost of $100 million.

Although the decision by the Senate--which echoed an earlier vote in the House--puts the issue to rest this year, lawmakers and interest groups on both sides of the issue acknowledged that it is likely to come up again next year when Congress considers legislation to enact Clinton’s health care reform plan. The Administration proposes including abortion payments for all women in its universal health care coverage.

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The wide margin of support for the ban surprised many who had believed that the President’s abortion rights stance--together with the election of more women to the U.S. Senate and House--would bolster chances for overturning or significantly modifying the prohibition this year.

But the House and Senate votes indicated strong sentiment in Congress for separating the issues of abortion rights and the federal financing of them.

Sounding a new theme for abortion rights backers, however, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), made a strong--if unsuccessful--appeal to lift the restrictions, saying: “I do not believe you can be pro-choice and not be pro-funding.”

The outcome of Tuesday’s vote was met with predictable reactions from the various sides in the issue, all of which vowed to continue the fight and predicted that they ultimately would prevail.

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“We suffered a temporary setback,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), “but we intend to make a major fight (to include abortions) as we move forward on health care legislation.”

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, described the Senate vote as a victory for millions of Americans who do not wish to subsidize abortions.

“It is clearer than ever that burdening a much-needed (health) reform bill with mandated abortion coverage would be a moral tragedy, a serious policy misjudgment and a major political mistake,” the Cardinal said in a statement.

Thirty-eight Republicans and 21 Democrats voted Tuesday to continue the ban, which was enacted in 1977 at the urging of Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), for whom it is named. Thirty-four Democrats and six Republicans voted to drop the restrictions.

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The earlier House vote was an equally decisive 255 to 178. Despite the decision to uphold the ban on most abortions, the language in the amendment was changed slightly this year to allow Medicaid payments for abortions in the case of rape or incest and for women whose pregnancies endanger their lives.

And this year--without having to overcome a veto on abortion rights legislation--Congress authorized the District of Columbia to provide Medicaid abortions and the Senate voted, 51 to 48, to permit health insurance plans for federal employees to include abortion coverage.

Senators who support abortion rights said that the outcome of this vote does not mean that the Senate would oppose abortion coverage as part of a basic benefits package for all women under the Clinton Administration’s health care plan.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and other Democratic women senators who led the fight to repeal the amendment, predicted that they would be able to change the votes of 10 to 12 senators when it came to covering abortions as part of a national health care program.

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Boxer said that some Democratic senators had told her they voted to keep the Hyde Amendment because they were worried about overriding state laws that bar or limit payments for abortions.

All five Democratic women senators--Feinstein, Boxer, Mikulski, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington--later faxed a letter to President Clinton, who campaigned as a supporter of abortion rights, expressing dismay at “recent reports that your Administration may appoint anti-choice judges to the federal judiciary.”

Although Clinton’s first appointment to the Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, known as a champion of women’s rights, some Administration officials have indicated that there would not be an pro-abortion rights litmus test for all federal court appointments.

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story from Los Angeles.

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