DALLAS (Reuters) - Concern over federal funding for abortion, which nearly torpedoed historic U.S. healthcare reforms signed by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, now looms as a potent issue for congressional elections in November.
Obama clinched the votes he needed for the reforms in the House of Representatives by winning over a handful of Democratic abortion rights opponents with a promise of an executive order affirming current restrictions.
Republicans and conservative critics have called foul and insist the bill provides loopholes for federal abortion funding. Electoral battle lines are already being drawn over what is one of the most divisive social issues in America.
Groups which support abortion rights and leading Democrats point to wording in the bill which they say clearly prohibits federal funding for abortion.
They say their opponents are using the issue as part of a strategy to energize a key conservative base of voters and block the reforms, which they portray as extending government control over healthcare.
“Their end goal has been to undermine healthcare reform so that’s why they are launching misleading attacks,” said Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood which supports abortion rights.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 36 of the 100 seats in the Senate are up for grabs in November.
The new law does specify various prohibitions on public funding for abortion services.
But critics like the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby, say that authorization for abortion coverage in health plans is to be found in exchanges that will provide subsidies in the form of tax credits.
They also see abortion being paid for directly through federal appropriations for community health centers, co-ops and high-risk insurance pools which they say contain no explicit provisions about their possible use for abortions.
The U.S. right to abortion was recognized in the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, but federal funding of most abortions has been limited since 1976 under a legislative provision known as the “Hyde Amendment.”
Anti-abortion rights activists say they will target Democrats they see as vulnerable on the issue, including Michigan Representative Bart Stupak, a spokesman for the party’s abortion opponents who eventually voted for the bill.
“Let me be clear: any representative, including Rep. Stupak, who votes for this healthcare bill can no longer call themselves ‘pro-life,’” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund.
“The SBA List Candidate Fund will work tirelessly to help defeat members who support this legislation. ... whether it be in general or primary elections,” she said in a statement.
The Family Research Council said its targets included Stupak and Representative Steve Driehaus of Ohio, members of a small bloc of Democrats whose last-minute support proved decisive.
“Those few pro-life Democrats that would place the fate of the unborn in the hands of the President, will be placing their own political fate in those same hands,” said FRC President Tony Perkins.
Conservative activists accuse Obama and the Democrats of lying on the issue. “They used chicanery to say there was no abortion funding in the bill ... and the executive order does not overwrite statutory law ,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.
Some rights groups say the new law will actually restrict abortions and they will push to have elements repealed.
“The legislation includes an onerous provision that requires Americans to write two separate checks if the insurance plan they choose includes abortion coverage,” NARAL Pro-Choice America said in a statement.
Abortion has long been one of the most polarizing issues in America. One in four U.S. adults is an evangelical Christian and many of them are opposed to abortion rights on religious grounds, as are many Catholics.
The issue has also been highly partisan but analysts say the divide is no longer so clear cut and after the healthcare reform debate, in which conservatives like Stupak were prominent, Democrats could gain traction on the issue.
“It enhances their prospects in November because it shows there is a substantial pro-life grouping in the Democratic Party,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“The Republicans have to make it an issue because they have to establish that if you are pro-life, you vote Republican. If they let the idea get out there that if you are pro-life you can be either Democrat or Republican, then that is a big loss for them,” Jillson said.
Polls show opposition to abortion rights growing in America but the country remains almost evenly divided on the issue. (Editing by David Storey)