Gannett Newspapers: Health-care fight over abortion resurfaces

This article originally appeared on the Gannett Newspaper wire on October 27, 2010 and was updated on October 28, 2010.


Health-care fight over abortion resurfaces

Groups target 3 Democratic lawmakers from Indiana, who say they fought federal funding

By Maureen Groppe

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Anyone driving from South Bend to Kokomo these days can’t miss the billboards along U.S. 31 accusing Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly of backing public funding of abortions.

“Shame on Joe Donnelly,” say the billboards, which are paid for by the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that opposes abortion rights.

Such groups have spent more than $313,000 on ads, mailings, bus tours and other expenditures to help elect Hoosier Republicans to Congress, even though their top Democratic targets — Donnelly, Rep. Baron Hill and Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who is running for Senate — say they fought to prevent the new health-care law from allowing federal funding of abortions.

None of the three is backed by groups that advocate for abortion rights.

“My pro-life credentials are crystal-clear,” said Donnelly, who received the lowest possible ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America last year. “But you have to understand, this is not about being pro-life. This is politics.”

The campaign ads are an extension of the fight over the health-care overhaul. The House passed the bill twice over GOP opposition, but only after arguments over abortion were resolved to attract crucial support from Democrats.

The annual spending bill that funds Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, routinely bars use of federal funds to directly finance abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.

Under the health-care overhaul, people without employer-provided coverage who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase health insurance on their own could qualify for federal subsidies to buy coverage on new health exchanges. The question was whether women getting subsidies could purchase insurance that covers elective abortions.

Under the first version of the overhaul, brought to the House floor last November, women would have had to pay separately for the part of a premium that covered abortion services if they chose a plan that offered them.

When anti-abortion groups rejected that approach as an accounting gimmick, Ellsworth tried to broker a compromise. A private contractor would handle payments for abortion services to further segregate funding, and there would be at least one plan on the exchange that didn’t cover abortion services.

That didn’t satisfy abortion foes, so Democratic leaders let the House vote on whether to simply bar insurers from selling plans covering abortions to women receiving the premium subsidies. The amendment passed with support from Ellsworth, Donnelly and Hill.

But that restriction wasn’t included in the Senate health-care reform bill that came to the House for final passage in March.

Donnelly had publicly said that the Senate’s version, which required only a segregation of premiums, wasn’t good enough. He was among the final holdouts.

He and other anti-abortion Democrats didn’t back the bill until the White House announced the president would sign an executive order affirming that the overhaul would maintain the ban on the federal funding of abortions.

Abortion rights groups were upset, saying the new law imposes restrictions on abortion coverage that could lead most private health insurers to stop offering such coverage. Private insurers wouldn’t go to the trouble of establishing separate premiums for abortion services, they said, and states could prohibit plans from offering abortion coverage on their health exchanges.

Groups that oppose abortion rights weren’t happy, either. They said neither the law nor the executive order would prevent federally funded abortions, and they promised to tell that to voters.

In addition to the billboards, a bus tour and mailings, the Susan B. Anthony List teamed with Indiana Family Action and CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, to run TV ads in Donnelly’s district that the average viewer would see eight or nine times this month.

“The campaign will remind voters that Joe Donnelly had the chance to protect his constituents from funding abortion, but caved to (House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and President (Barack) Obama, ushering in the biggest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said when the ad campaign was announced.

National Right to Life has paid for mailings and newspaper ads in the Senate race and in four House races in Indiana. Donnelly and Hill are among 12 Democrats whom Americans United for Life Action are targeting nationwide with radio ads and e-mail blasts.

None of the organizations spent more than $1,000 on any Indiana congressional races in 2008, but none was as competitive as this year.

Some candidates are pushing back against the ads.

When Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus learned the Susan B. Anthony List planned to put up billboards bashing him, he complained they would violate Ohio law barring false statements about candidates.

The Susan B. Anthony List tried to stop the Ohio Elections Commission from hearing the case, but a federal judge this week rejected their attempt.

“The government has no right to act as ‘speech police’ and tell us what we can and cannot say, or decide what is true and what is false,” said Terre Haute’s Jim Bopp, the group’s attorney.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper demanded that four Erie radio stations stop running Americans United for Life ads, saying they were slanderous.

In Indiana, Ellsworth has tried to turn the table on his GOP opponent, former Sen. Dan Coats, who was endorsed by National Right to Life.

An Ellsworth campaign ad says Coats “made money from America’s biggest abortion rights group.” Planned Parenthood was a client of King & Spalding, the lobbying firm Coats worked for before deciding to run for the Senate. Coats said he told the firm he wouldn’t work on any issues for Planned Parenthood.

But Ellsworth said the fees King & Spalding earned from Planned Parenthood helped cover Coats’ salary, and that’s the same financial argument the anti-abortion groups make against the health-care law.

“They’re saying you can’t separate the funds because you in turn then do fund an abortion if you pay a subsidy to the insurance companies for people to get health care,” Ellsworth said. “If Dan Coats’ firm is representing Planned Parenthood and they pay into that firm, he is accepting money . . . from Planned Parenthood.”

Indiana Right to Life came to Coats’ defense and called Ellsworth’s ad a “thinly veiled attempt to draw attention away from his own betrayal of Indiana’s pro-life community by caving in on the federal health-care vote.”

Meanwhile, when one of the new health-care law’s provisions took effect in July — establishing temporary high-risk pools for people unable to get coverage through a private insurer — federal officials made it clear abortion services would be covered only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

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