President Obama Signs Executive Order on Abortion

BY Jason M. Breslow  March 24, 2010 at 4:37 PM EST

President Obama signed an executive order Wednesday afternoon reaffirming that no federal money will be used to pay for abortions under the new health care reform law. The order follows through on a promise the president made Sunday to anti-abortion Democrats in the House, to secure their vote for the reform bill.

The president signed the statement in a small ceremony that was not open to the press. But many of the anti-abortion Democrats will be present, including Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, who led the effort to include anti-abortion language in the bill.

Stupak held out his vote until the last minute Sunday. He had successfully fought to include stricter anti-abortion language in the original House bill that passed in September. Under that bill, no one who received any federal subsidies to purchase insurance could buy a plan that covered abortion services on one of the new state-run insurance exchanges.

But the Senate and reconciliation bills, which the House voted on Sunday, are somewhat less strict. Under these bills, people who receive federal subsidies and wish to purchase a plan with abortion coverage will have to write two separate checks, and the check for the part of the plan that covers abortions cannot include federal money. The insurance companies are required to keep the two funding streams separate.

The executive order that President Obama signs Wednesday does not change those rules, but it does reaffirm that the reform bill will follow the principles of the Hyde amendment, the longstanding rule that prohibits federal funding of abortions, and calls for an enforcement mechanism to make sure of that.

Although the executive order convinced Stupak and his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill, many anti-abortion groups were not satisfied.

“We do not understand how an Executive order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions,” Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.

The Conference had said that although it supported the goals of health care reform, it could not support the bill because of the abortion issue.

Some conservative columnists have called the president’s executive order “meaningless” and called Stupak weak for giving in to pressure from fellow Democrats. According to Politico, he and other lawmakers have received death threats since agreeing to vote for the bill.

On the other side of the debate, abortion rights supporters aren’t pleased with the bill’s abortion language either — they argue that it places too many restrictions on abortion access.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL pro-choice America, said in a statement:

“The legislation includes an onerous provision that requires Americans to write two separate checks if the insurance plan they choose includes abortion coverage. This unacceptable bureaucratic stigmatization could cause insurance carriers to drop abortion coverage, even though more than 85 percent of private plans currently cover this care for women.”

Keenan said the group plans to continue the legislative fight to change that aspect of the reform bill.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups have already promised to make the vote a campaign issue in November and to support candidates running against the anti-abortion Democrats who voted for the bill.

“Let me be clear: any representative, including Rep. Stupak, who votes for this healthcare bill can no longer call themselves ‘pro-life,’” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund.