Clinton to seek repeal of ban on federally funded abortions


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is expected to fulfill a campaign promise next week by proposing the reversal of a ban on using federal funds to pay for abortions, as part of his budget request to Congress.

The president will ask Congress to repeal the law, which bans using Medicaid funds to finance abortions for poor women, said George Stephanopoulos, the chief White House spokesman.

Mr. Stephanopoulos cast the decision as an effort to give states greater flexibility. "The Republicans have shown consistently in their platform that they weren't prepared to allow for abortions even in cases of rape and incest," he said. "This proposal simply tries to preserve the flexibility of the states to make the tough decisions they must make."

An administration official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said the legal implications of lifting the Hyde Amendment were unclear.

Specifically, he said, there is much disagreement over how this move will affect states that have banned the use of their money for abortions and therefore do not include them in their Medicaid programs.

How Congress will respond and how hard Mr. Clinton will push the issue are still unclear, say lawmakers and legislative analysts on Capitol Hill. Opponents of abortion say they believe they have a good chance of blocking the president.

For all the uncertainties, Mr. Clinton's decision to seek the repeal of the 16-year-old federal prohibition, which is known as the Hyde Amendment and applies to the Medicaid program for poor people, is a sign of the sea change in abortion politics.

Both sides of the abortion issue predict that the next six months will test old positions, long-standing alliances and the power of the abortion-rights movement under a friendly administration.

This struggle will play out not only in the spending and budget bills that make their way through Congress this spring and summer but also in the renewed effort to win passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, which is intended to limit the restrictions that states can impose on abortion.

Perhaps most important, both sides of the abortion issue are preparing for a fight over the huge health-care program now being drafted by the White House task force headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"For too long, women's reproductive health has been left to the vagaries of politics," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, who met with top White House officials on the issue last week.

The primary goal in all these struggles, Ms. Michelman added, is "to have government return to a position of neutrality in the reproductive decisions of women."

Opponents of abortion are just as adamant about preventing abortion from becoming a routine medical service in the eyes of the law. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said of the abortion-rights forces, "They want to obliterate any distinction between abortion and contraception."

Mr. Clinton's decision to seek repeal of the Hyde Amendment is the fulfillment of a campaign promise that highlighted the gulf between him and President Bush on abortion.

The amendment, named for its sponsor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, was approved by Congress in 1976. It applies to Medicaid, the basic health-care program for poor people, which is financed by the federal government and the states.

At present, the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of any federal money for abortions for poor women unless a woman's life is endangered from continued pregnancy.

The Hyde Amendment has been the subject of repeated skirmishes over the years, with abortion-rights supporters in Congress trying several times to allow federal financing of abortions in cases of rape and incest. But Mr. Bush consistently vetoed such efforts; his staunch opposition to abortion meant that abortion-rights supporters needed a veto-proof majority of two-thirds in each house of Congress, exceedingly hard to get.

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