Q&A: Nelson, abortion & the health care bill

Baptist Press
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Posted: Dec 18, 2009 5:15 PM
WASHINGTON (BP)--As possibly the lone Democrat preventing the health care bill from receiving a vote, U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is under intense pressure to compromise his pro-life views.

Following are a few questions, with answers, about the bill:

-- What are Nelson's problems with the bill?

Nelson says the bill, as currently worded, would result in taxpayer dollars going toward elective abortions -- something prohibited under current law. He sponsored an amendment to the bill that would have alleviated his concerns but it was defeated Dec. 8. Speaking on the Senate floor that day, Nelson said, "We're seeking to just apply the same standards to the Senate health care bill that already exist for many federal health programs."

-- Democratic leaders and pro-choice groups say the bill already bans federal funding of abortion. Who is right?

The 2,000-page bill explains its rules on abortion on pages 116-124 in often-convoluted and confusing language. The word "abortion," in fact, is rarely used and instead is referred to as "services described in subparagraph (B)(i)." Nelson's concerns with the bill focus on two areas: 1) The bill would require that each state have at least one insurance plan that covers abortion and 2) the bill would allow federal subsidies -- federal money given to lower-income people -- to be used for purchasing plans that cover abortions. Technically, insurance companies would be required to segregate their funds so that the subsidies would not go toward abortions, but Nelson and other critics call the segregation an accounting gimmick. Meanwhile, Nelson's concern about the bill's public option apparently was allayed when it was pulled from the bill at the request of Sen. Joe Lieberman.

-- Why is it such a problem if families use federal money to purchase plans covering abortion?

Pro-life groups say it violates current federal policy, forces people to subsidize an immoral practice, and that it would naturally lead to an increase in abortions. In his floor speech Nelson noted that, under current law, Medicaid does not cover elective abortion, nor do the federal insurance plans provided to federal employees. If the women under these current plans are provided a new plan that does cover abortion, pro-lifers say, then there would be no financial deterrent, as there is now. The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute this summer reported that about 25 percent of the women in Medicaid who would have had an abortion chose instead to give birth because they were barred from using public money. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins criticized President Obama's stance on the issue when he wrote, "The same man who asked, 'How can we reduce the number of abortions?' refuses to accept the easy answer: stop paying for them!"

-- How would the bill's proposed segregation of funds work?

Under the bill, health insurance for lower-income people would be subsidized at different percentages, based on their income. The person at the lowest end of the scale might get 100 percent of their insurance paid for, while a person higher on the scale might get only 50 percent of their insurance subsidized. The insurance company is to set aside the federal subsidies and to use only the private premiums -- for instance, the 50 percent the person sent in out of their own pocket -- for abortion funding. The idea has critics on the right and left. "Everybody knows the money is fungible and that this is basically an accounting trick," MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a liberal talk show host, said in November.

-- Shouldn't women be allowed to use their own money to purchase a plan that covers abortion?

They still would be able to do so under Nelson's amendment by purchasing a separate policy known as a rider.

-- What about abortions in the cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life?

Current federal policy allows federal funding of abortion in those three cases. Nelson's amendment would not change that.

-- What would Nelson's amendment have done?

It would have done two things: 1) prevent a government-run public option from covering abortion and 2) prohibit federal subsidies for lower-income people from purchasing private plans that cover abortion

-- Wouldn't the Hyde Amendment apply to the health care bill?

The Hyde Amendment, which prevents elective abortions from being covered under Medicaid, would not apply to the new health care bill.

-- Has any polling been done on this issue?

A CNN poll in November found American adults are against "using public funds for abortions when the woman cannot afford it" by a 61-37 percent margin.

Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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