Jewish Groups Fight Abortion Restrictions in Health Care Bill

By Eric Fingerhut (JTA)

Published November 30, 2009.

Several Jewish groups are fighting a controversial measure in health reform legislation that would have the effect of eliminating insurance coverage for abortion for millions of women.

At issue is the Stupak Amendment, a measure included at the last minute in the health care bill passed Nov. 7 by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Several organizations – including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Congress and the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee – have spoken out or are lobbying to make sure the amendment does not end up either in the Senate version of health care legislation or the final bill that emerges from a conference committee.

Jewish abortion rights activists say that many people fail to realize the effect of the measure on reproductive freedom. The issue potentially could divide liberals as they struggle to prioritize protecting abortion rights and securing conservative Democratic votes in favor of a final health care bill.

“We strongly want to see health care reform, but we don’t want to see women thrown under the bus,” said Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Joint Action Committee, a Jewish political action committee that promotes reproductive freedom, separation of church and state, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Under a law known as the Hyde Amendment, public funds cannot be used to cover abortions except in cases of rape, incest and threat to the life of the mother. But the Stupak Amendment would go much further, banning anyone receiving federal subsidies for health insurance – those earning 400 percent of the poverty level, or $88,000 for a family of four – from buying a plan that covers abortion.

In addition, the proposed measure would not allow any insurance plan that takes part in the new “insurance exchange” to include abortion in its coverage, even for those paying for coverage with their own funds. (The legislation would allow companies to sell a separate “rider” for abortion coverage, but advocates say it is unlikely that women would purchase such a plan for what is almost always an unplanned procedure.)

By essentially saying that insurance plans cannot segregate private funds used for abortion from public funds that are not allowed for such a purpose, opponents argue that Stupak in a number of areas contradicts government policy – which, for instance, permits public funds to go to religious institutions as long as the money is not used for religious activties.

The director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein, said that in pushing for the stricter abortion measure, religious conservatives are using the opposite argument from their case for allowing government-subsidized school vouchers to be used for religious schools. Conservatives argue that the voucher case does not constitute government endorsement of religion because a mother or father is making the choice of where to spend the money.

But in pushing for the adoption of Stupak, proponents are saying that if the government gives an individual money for health insurance, the government is then endorsing abortion if the recipient uses her insurance to pay for such a procedure.

Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, said that while her organization does not like the current law preventing federal funding of abortion, it was willing to abide it in order to achieve significant health care reform.

“We understood from very early on, this vehicle is not going to be the vehicle where we’re going to fight that battle” on the Hyde Amendment, she said.

But Moshenberg called the Stupak Amendment “devastating,” describing it as “an attempt to have one religious viewpoint foisted on us legislatively and sets up the federal government to enforce it.”

Some of the opponents in the Jewish community will be joining other organizations in a Washington lobby day on Dec. 2 aimed at killing the measure.

Saperstein said a “growing uproar” over Stupak had emerged from the grass-roots over the past couple weeks, with one Reform synagogue even passing a statement of opposition to the legislation at its board meeting.

Saperstein, whose organization has been an outspoken advocate for health care reform, joined others in saying that he did not want to contemplate yet whether his organization could support a bill that also included the Stupak restrictions.

“No one knows what the final bill is going to look like,” he said. Right now, “we’re doing everything we can to fight” the Stupak Amendment.



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