House Democrats ought to be embarrassed by the anti-abortion amendment grafted over the weekend to their landmark health care legislation. As ugly as the health care debate has gotten, the last thing the women of this country likely expected was that a Democrat-controlled Congress would want to limit their ability to purchase health insurance plans that cover abortion.

But that's exactly what happened when the House adopted the last-minute anti-choice amendment. It goes far beyond the established practice of banning Medicaid funding for abortion and makes it difficult for anyone buying insurance with any form of government assistance to get abortion coverage. And because of that, the opportunity to purchase coverage for the procedure may be diminished for all women, even those who get no subsidies from the government.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the House decision an "outrageous blow to women's freedom and privacy," and it's difficult to see it as anything less. It's one thing to ban federal funding for abortion, as has been done in the past; it's quite another to restrict the access of women who are buying health coverage with their own money.

It's possible some lawmakers didn't quite understand the ramifications of the amendment, which was adopted Saturday night by a stunning 240-194 vote. The House even rejected alternative language to require abortion payments to come from individual premiums and not a government subsidy, a compromise that would have at least preserved the status quo.

It's not just women who might purchase insurance coverage through the so-called public option who would be affected. Any plan offered in the newly created marketplace would have to reject all government-subsidized customers (a large group, since it includes any uninsured family of four earning less than $88,000 a year). Even people receiving no subsidy would likely find it difficult to get coverage as a result of that restriction.

The amendment's supporters claim women could purchase a separate rider to cover abortion. But that's a ludicrous proposition - not only because such riders are not commonly available but also because no one should have to purchase insurance by procedure. Most people do not have the foresight to know if they'll ever need an abortion, any more than they might need to have a gallbladder removed or a kidney stone pulverized.

No doubt some Democrats voted for the amendment to keep the health care bill moving along through Congress and expect it to be stripped from the bill in the Senate or in conference committee. But a woman's right to choose should not be treated so lightly and left to the vagaries of backroom negotiations.

Indeed, there are still many Democrats who hope that eventually the House and Senate would get around to removing three-decades-old restrictions on abortion funding entirely. This is a big step backward. Why poor women should be refused reproductive choices - particularly when the consequences for society can be so adverse - is one of the federal government's more mind-boggling and misguided policies.

Democrats may be running scared since last Tuesday's GOP wins in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. Health care reform has always been a difficult task. But the party's woes have only just begun if it intends to continue this assault on the rights of more than half the country's population.

Readers respond

Any way that funding for abortions can be curtailed is a good thing.

The legislation doesn't outlaw abortion; it simply takes any connection to it out of the public sector. Sort of the same way that some people want to take religion out of schools and other governmental institutions because they don't think it belongs, abortion should be taken out of federal health care legislation because it doesn't belong.

I am pro-life, but also believe that in some cases abortion is the right course of action, even if it is distasteful. But let's not use the money from those who support and protect life to allow others to take it.

Love life

Shame on the Democrats for advancing the cause of the anti-abortionists just to get this bill passed. Women's reproductive rights from now on will be at the mercy of federal bureaucrats and ideologues. The government-run health exchange promises to be a stage where patients' individual freedoms and health choices will be subject to the ongoing political dramas in Congress.

UN at the table

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