The Obama administration is finding itself on the defensive with a usually reliable ally: abortion rights groups. They are furious that the administration is banning abortion coverage in a new program that's part of the health insurance overhaul law. The program is meant to provide coverage with pre-existing health conditions.

NPR's Julie Rovner joins us now to explain what's going on. Hiya.


SIEGEL: And tell us about the new program. These are the high-risk pools.

ROVNER: That's right. Basically, they're for people who have health problems that make it otherwise impossible for them to get health insurance. In fact, in order to get insurance through this program, you have to prove that you've been denied coverage by another health insurer and that you've been uninsured for at least six months.

Now, this is a temporary program. It will end in 2014, when these new health insurance exchanges begin. There is $5 billion in federal funding to either help states run their own programs or have the federal government run these high-risk pools.

SIEGEL: Now, take us back to passage of the overhaul in March. I thought there was a promise made that federal abortion funding would be banned as part of the new law.

ROVNER: Well, yes and no, and that's what this current fight is about. If you remember, in order to get the health bill passed, Democrats needed the votes of members of their party who both support and oppose abortion, which was no mean feat.

In the end, President Obama promised to issue an executive order barring federal abortion funding. But the executive order only extends to the new health insurance exchanges, which as I just said don't start until 2014, and to community health centers.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that there's a loophole for these high-risk pools.

ROVNER: Well abortion rights groups are saying there's a loophole for these high-risk pools, and they're saying that that's not insignificant. They point out that women with cancer or diabetes or MS or whatever else makes them eligible for the high-risk pools in the first place are also more likely to have high-risk pregnancies that could result in the medical need for an abortion, which is why many existing state high-risk pools actually offer abortion as a covered service now.

SIEGEL: And what does the Obama administration say?

ROVNER: Well, so far they're saying they're following the rules of the health plans for federal workers, which also ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman would be endangered by carrying the pregnancy to term.

Interestingly, however, that's a ban that has to be renewed every year by Congress, and some of the abortion rights groups are muttering that they don't think the Obama administration even has the legal authority to implement this particular ban because it wasn't in the health overhaul law. The abortion restrictions in the law only apply to the insurance exchanges, and it wasn't in the executive order, either.

SIEGEL: So Julie, why do you think the Obama administration, pretty clearly on the side of abortion rights in that debate, is implementing this ban?

ROVNER: Well, it's also pretty clear that if they didn't, they would get all kinds of criticism from the Democrats who only voted for this bill because they were promised it wouldn't expand federal funding of abortion.

And last week, even though the administration is pretty clearly demonstrating that it's not the case, anti-abortion groups were spreading documents, trying to demonstrate that states were going to use this federal money to pay for abortions.

So the administration is clearly in a lose-lose proposition here. I suspect they decided they would lose more if they did allow the abortion funding. So they're saying no abortion funding.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Julie.

ROVNER: You're very welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: NPR's Julie Rovner

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.