America's religious right has scored its first legislative victory since George W. Bush's reelection by inserting a clause into a spending bill to undermine state laws requiring hospitals to provide abortions.
The provision, a last-minute addition to a $388 billion budget bill, was approved by Congress without debate last weekend in one of its last acts of this legislative session. It is expected to be signed into law soon by President Bush. The passage of the bill caps a two-year campaign by Roman Catholic bishops and antiabortion organizations to give legal cover to hospitals that refuse to perform terminations, or to even refer women to abortion providers.
The country's largest antiabortion group described the bill's passage as one of its most important legal victories. The triumph for the religious right was condemned by Democratic senators and women's activists as a clandestine attempt to chisel away at abortion rights. Few members were even aware of the clause when the bill was brought to Congress on Saturday, and by then it was too late to block it.
"This statute was proposed numerous times in Congress, and it never succeeded as an independent piece of legislation," said Linda Rosenthal, a director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Now they have come back at the 11th hour and tucked a rider onto an appropriations bill. It is absolutely a stealth effort to undermine abortion. It is not transparent, and it is not above board."
After an uproar from Democrats, it was agreed that the Senate would hold a vote to repeal the measure in April. Until then women's activists were trying to assess what impact the measure would have on those seeking abortions. Although U.S. women have a guaranteed right to legal abortion under the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade verdict, hospitals and insurance companies are not compelled to provide the service, and individual doctors can refuse to perform abortions as a matter of conscience.
But the law in some states does require hospitals and insurance companies to provide abortion services, and it is these legal requirements that are the target of the latest federal measure, officially known as the Abortion Anti-Discrimination Act. Women's activists fear that the sweeping language in the provision will discourage hospitals from providing information on abortion services, and also expose insurance companies to pressure from the Christian right, which has proved itself a formidable lobbying force.
"This has the potential to do a lot of damage," said Susanne Martin, the deputy director for policy at Planned Parenthood. "We certainly can anticipate that the opponents of abortion will try to use this to leverage hospitals and insurance companies to deny women coverage. It will provide them [with] a new opening to harass these providers."
The latest success has also provided an important moral boost to the religious right at a time when its adherents are looking to the next four years to advance their agenda. The measure is the first of several provisions seeking to restrict abortion rights due before Congress in the new year.
Among them is a bill that would prevent minors from traveling outside their states to seek abortion counseling. And there is a measure that would require doctors to lecture patients on the pain felt by the fetus during an abortion, although scientists have not established whether a fetus does feel pain.