ARI SHAPIRO, host:
As the Senate now enters its third week of debate on restructuring health care, abortion remains one of the key unresolved issues. Senators who want the bill to include a strict ban on federal abortion funding like to point to the so called Hyde Amendment as an iron-clad precedent that dates back three decades. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports the language in that amendment has changed multiple times over the years.
JULIE ROVNER: During the very first day of debate on the Senate floor last month, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch explained what the Hyde Amendment named for the late Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde actually does.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Today's Hyde language which has been in every annual Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill since 1976 specifically prohibits federal dollars being used to pay for abortions except if the pregnancy was a result of rape, incest or the life of the mother is in danger.
ROVNER: That's true and Congress has to approve it every single year. By contrast, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, another abortion opponent, claimed the language in the proposed Senate health bill doesn't do enough to block federal abortion funding. That is, it's not close enough to Hyde. Instead, Brownback says, the proposed Senate bill:
Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): Is a departure, huge departure. Thirty years bipartisan federal policy prohibiting federal tax dollars from paying for elective abortions.
ROVNER: Now, the extent to which the proposed Senate health bill does or does not allow federal funding remains a matter of interpretation and argument. But the history of the Hyde amendment is very clear. Despite suggestions to the contrary, it has been anything but written in stone all these years.
Former Minnesota Republican Congressman Vin Weber served on the appropriations committee for most of the 1980s and early 1990s. He says abortion funding was a constant and recurring battle.
Former Representative VIN WEBER (Republican, Minnesota): And it went back and forth depending on whether or not you had Republicans or Democrats in power in the White House.
ROVNER: And over those years, while the Hyde amendment has always been renewed by Congress each year, it hasn't always been in the same form. It's been strengthened and weakened, depending on the state of the abortion debate in the country.
Ms. LAURIE RUBINER (Vice President for Public Policy, Planned Parenthood): When the Hyde was first passed in 1976, there were no exceptions. So, it was just a straight-out ban.
ROVNER: Laurie Rubiner is vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood and worked on Capitol Hill through many years of abortion fights, including some of the changes to the Hyde language.
Ms. RUBINER: Eventually, they added exceptions for rape, incest, to save the life of the mother and originally including serious health, when a woman had a very serious health condition. Then they took the serious health condition away.
ROVNER: But the mid-1980s with President Reagan in the White House, Republicans in control of the Senate and anti-abortion forces at a high point in their power, abortion restrictions in federal law spread, said Weber.
Rep. WEBER: Well, you know, the basic intent of Henry Hyde was to simply prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. And he had majority support for that. But when you actually get into the implementation of the policy, you find that there are a lot of other questions that people raise. Should we pay for counseling services that lead to abortion; should you pay for abortions in the cases of rape and incest?
ROVNER: In 1989, the then-all democratic House and Senate tried to add back rape and incest exceptions to the Hyde amendment, but it was vetoed by the first President Bush and there weren't enough votes to override. Everything changed when Bill Clinton became president in 1993. At that point, abortion rights supporters had the upper hand, because Democrats also controlled both the House and Senate.
They almost got rid of the Hyde amendment entirely. Congressman Hyde himself managed to keep his amendment part of the law, but he was forced to put back the rape and incest exceptions he'd kept out for more than a decade. Two years later, however, even with President Clinton still in office, Republicans took over the Congress and they soon forced the president to accept new abortion restrictions, precisely because they were part of bigger spending bills the president felt he couldn't veto.
Rubiner says that's part of the problem with abortion always being part of annual spending bills.
Ms. RUBINER: So, sometimes either on the good or bad side, presidents are forced to sign either one that's more or less restrictive because they need to get these departments funded.
ROVNER: Not having to fight the battle every year is a key reason abortion opponents are so eager to get the Hyde restrictions permanently written into the health overhaul and why abortion rights forces are so eager to prevent that from happening.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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