Loopholes Lessen Impact Of House Abortion Vote
WASHINGTON - Like many abortion-related issues, the political repercussions of Wednesday's House vote against federal funding of abortions for poor women are not as clear-cut as they first appear.
The vote upholding the 16-year funding ban was certainly a bruising blow to the pride and hopes of abortion-rights forces, particularly many of the women in Congress.
But it did not represent any tectonic shift in the political landscape to threaten the right of abortion. As tempers cooled, both sides drew lessons from Wednesday's clash.
Lesson One: Remember the power of the middle
A gap exists between the country's general support of the right to abortion and the call of abortion-rights purists for unrestricted abortion. There is significant opposition to the use of tax dollars for abortions.
"Americans, through litigation, have resolved that they want access to abortion," said Bill McInturff, a Republican Party pollster. "But Americans have also resolved the question of who pays. From 20 to 25 percent of those who think they are abortion-rights advocates are opposed to federal funding.
"I don't think the vote represents any significant change," he said. "People just forget there is this difference."
Lesson Two: The anti-welfare vote counts
Congress currently subsidizes middle-class women's abortions - by allowing a tax deduction of private health-care insurance that covers the procedure - but won't directly pay for poor women's abortion.
"Funding becomes a welfare issue," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "Some people who are not anti-abortion vote against federal funding because they are anti-welfare."
Lesson Three: Look at the loopholes
A strong argument can be made that the bill that passed the House marked a slight step forward for abortion-rights forces.
The House has traditionally resisted funding for any abortions - even in cases of rape or incest, or when a mother's life is endangered.
But in order to get support for his amendment banning federal funding, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., included exceptions for all three categories and required no rigid standards of proof. While deprived of a moral victory, abortion-rights legislators from inner-city districts found comfort in the practical effects that the loopholes would create if the bill becomes law.
"This is self-regulation," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. "I would tell my constituents: Send a letter. Say you were raped. Say it was incest. Say you have heart disease."
The new exceptions will also give abortion-rights supporters in the House a much stronger hand in the House-Senate conference, which will write the final law.
"A couple of years ago, we'd be declaring this a great victory," said Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn.
Lesson Four: Avoid being outfoxed
Members of the women's caucus acknowledged that they could have won a broader victory had they not been outfoxed, and that much of their angst was over matters of respect.
"These men don't realize we are equal members. With that kind of paternalistic attitude there is going to be chaos," warned Rep. Cardiss Collins, D-Ill.
Female abortion-rights supporters in Congress had developed a strategy to bar Hyde's amendment by a technical objection. But they hadn't developed a backup in case that failed. They felt betrayed when the House parliamentarian recognized a 19th-century precedent for Hyde's amendment.
Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Fla., said, "I don't think we can beat the good ol' boys heads-up. We'll have to strategize, find out what it is they want, and they're not going to get it until we get what we want."
The next big showdown: a yet-unscheduled House vote on the Freedom of Choice Act, which would limit the restrictions states can impose on abortion.
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