News: CJ Exclusives

Wake Commissioners to Debate Taxpayer-Funded Abortion

Chairman says he was ‘amazed’ that employee health policy includes the controversial procedure

Taxpayer-funded abortion has been a focal point of the debate over federal health care reform in Congress. Now, the Wake County Board of Commissioners is taking up the issue.

At their meeting Monday, commissioners will weigh whether to continue covering elective abortions — those considered unnecessary for medical reasons — in employee health insurance plans. The county’s current policy pays for family planning services, including abortion and birth control.

Abortion coverage extends to the physician’s office visit, impatient facility, outpatient facility, and physician’s services, according to the county’s plan provided by CIGNA HealthCare. The procedure has a 15 percent deductible for in-network providers.

“I was amazed that we had it,” said Tony Gurley, commission chairman. “I’ve made a point of asking whenever we had budget items with human services to make sure we weren’t using tax money for abortions. I never even asked about health care coverage.”

The proposed change (PDF download) would direct abortion coverage “only in the case of medical necessity where the life of the mother is endangered or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.”

The commissioners’ decision next week follows a move by the Town of Apex to scrub abortion services from employees’ health insurance. The town council voted unanimously Jan. 19 to eliminate elective coverage and pay for the procedure only for medically necessary reasons.

“There was very little discussion, and clearly everybody understood what we were doing and was as surprised as everyone else to see it was in our policy,” said Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly.

A number of federal policies already prohibit taxpayer dollars from flowing to abortion. The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976 as the pro-life movement’s first major victory since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision three years prior, prohibits abortion coverage through Medicaid.

Another amendment, sponsored by former Republican U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio and included in federal appropriations laws for the past decade, bars federal employees’ health plans from paying for abortions.

A similar provision was added to health care reform legislation passed by the U.S. House in November. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., offered an amendment banning federal funds from being used “for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion,” except when the woman’s life is endangered.

The amendment, which passed by 46 votes Nov. 7, helped the Democratic leadership carve out enough support to pass the full health care bill later the same day.

Advocates of reversing abortion coverage in local governments say they’re copying policies already in place at the federal level. But some don’t want the issue brought up.

“My vote is that we should not be considering this,” said Stan Norwalk, a Wake County commissioner. “We’re supposed to take care of policy. It’s a matter of obeying the law, and that’s up to the county attorney.”

Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht was skeptical of reversing his town’s policy on abortion coverage in an interview with The Cary News.

“It raises all kinds of broader questions,” he said. “Which is why, in my opinion, this is not the business of a local council. We’re supposed to be setting local policy, not deciding these bigger life issues.”

Michelle Muir, a Cary resident who is organizing grass-roots efforts to encourage the town council to eliminate abortion coverage, said the debate is about individual conscience rather than the legality of abortion.

“What’s wrong is to violate the taxpayers’ conscience and to provide for something that taxpayers are opposed to,” she said. “I would say that the majority of citizens in Cary would not pull out their checkbook and pay for someone to have an abortion.”

The debate has the potential to catch fire across the state as local governments discover abortion coverage in their health insurance policies. Already, Cumberland County has reversed its policy effective March 1. Guilford County hasn’t paid for the procedure in years. Other counties and municipalities, though, continue the funding.

National surveys show that while Americans are divided on whether abortion should be legal, most oppose using public funds to pay for the procedure. A CNN poll in November found that 61 percent of respondents oppose paying for indigent women’s abortions with taxpayer dollars, compared with 37 percent who favor it.

Although he sees elective abortion coverage primarily as a legal question, Gurley said he’s willing to take the debate to the next level if necessary.

“I’m not afraid of using it as a political issue,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.