Interview: DeGette On Abortion In The Health Reform Debate

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), a co-Chairwoman of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, has been an outspoken critic of the abortion language included in the House health care bill.

In the interview that follows, she makes the case that current language in the House health care bill--proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and passed on the House floor shortly before the entire package was voted on--amounts to a massive expansion of abortion restrictions. In an interview last week, Stupak said his amendment amounts to no more than current law; in this interview, DeGette responds to his explanation.

The abortion debate in Congress has come down to a battle between two proposals--Stupak's, and one offered by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and supported (or, as they will point out, agreed to as a compromise) by pro-choice Democrats.

The Capps proposal would create an accounting firewall to segregate federal funds from paying for abortions for recipients of federal subsidies who shop for insurance on the regional health insurance exchanges created under the bill. It would also require regional insurance commissioners to try to ensure that each exchange offered one insurance plan that does cover abortions, and one that does not.

Were you satisfied with the abortion language included in the House health care bill--proposed by Rep. Lois Capps--before the Stupak amendment passed? How did that come about? Was it a compromise, and did you think it was the right way to go?

When the abortion issue came up in the Energy and Commerce Committee, the main concern that we had was keeping the bill neutral on the issue of abortion, because as the president said last week, this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill, and so we, some of the pro-choice members, negotiated with some of the pro-life Democrats, and we came up with the Capps amendment, which basically preserves the status quo. What it does is it says that no federal funds in the exchange or in the public option shall be used to pay for abortions, and then it sets up an accounting system to segregate the money so that if somebody has premium assistance or if they are in the public option, no federal funds can go to pay for insurance policies that will cover a full range of reproductive care.

Congressman Stupak says that his amendment is an extension of the Hyde language [the current, annually renewed ban on federal funding for abortions]--that it's just the same as current law. You and other pro-choice members of Congress have said that that's not the case. Can you elaborate on the differences?

This would be the biggest expansion of restrictions on a woman's right to choose, certainly in my career, because it doesn't just preserve Hyde, it goes much, much further. The Hyde amendment says no federal funds shall be used for abortion, except for in the situation of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. What the Stupak amendment said is that in the insurance exchange, or in the public option, people will not be able to buy insurance plans that cover abortion, even with their own private money. So the Capps amendment says you can't use federal dollars to pay for abortions, but people can still use their own private money to buy these policies, and [the Stupak amendment] would effectively eliminate people's ability to get coverage for full reproductive care in the exchange or in the public option.

The way that I understood the Stupak amendment was that you could buy a plan in the exchange with your own private money that covers elective abortions, but you couldn't if you received subsidies [Note: under Stupak, subsidy recipients can buy supplemental abortion-coverage plans with their own money], and that the argument against it is that so many people receive subsidies in the exchange that private health insurers just wouldn't provide them--but this is not what you're saying.

That's correct, because what the Stupak amendment says is that if somebody gets a subsidy, then they cannot buy an insurance plan in the exchange even with the portion of their subsidy that is their own private dollars. Let's say somebody pays a hundred dollars a month for their insurance premium in the exchange. Let's say they have a $10 premium assistance, and $90 of their own private money. What the Stupak amendment would say is that they can't even apply the $90 of premium to buying a health care plan that would cover abortions. And it's also true that because 80 percent of the people in the exchange will be estimated to have some kind of premium assistance, most people feel that it would be unlikely that the exchange would offer these plans that cover abortions to even the 20 percent who are paying purely with their own private dollars. So we think the effect of the Stupak amendment would be to deny everybody in the public option or in the exchange in general from buying insurance with their own private money that would offer full reproductive care.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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