By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities praised the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) July 15 for reaffirming that no federal funds will be provided to cover elective abortions under state-run health insurance plans.

The statement came from Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston after HHS spokeswoman Jenny Backus said that “in Pennsylvania and in all other states, abortion will not be covered in the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan except in the cases of rape or incest, or where the life of the woman would be endangered.”

The cardinal said the statement averted what could have been an “alarming precedent” and pointed up the need for a permanent law to exclude abortion from all programs under the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. {{more}}

The HHS statement was issued after Pennsylvania officials announced that the state had received $160 million in federal funds for its insurance program covering those with pre-existing conditions.

Although an outline of the program says that “elective abortions will not be covered” under the program, another section states that coverage “includes only abortions and contraceptives that satisfy the requirements of” several Pennsylvania statutes. Under one of the cited statutes, abortion is permitted up to 24 weeks of pregnancy if a physician certifies that the abortion is necessary because of the woman’s “physical, emotional, psychological (or) familial” circumstances or her age.

HHS’ Backus said the abortion policy she outlined in her statement would apply to both state and federally run programs covering people with pre-existing conditions.

“We will reiterate this policy in guidance to those running the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan at both the state and federal levels,” she added. “The contracts to operate the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan includes a requirement to follow all federal laws and guidance.”

Cardinal DiNardo said he welcomed “this new policy, while continuing to be gravely concerned that it was not issued until after some states had announced that pro-abortion health plans were approved and had begun to enroll patients.”

“This situation illustrates once again the need for Congress to enact legislation clearly stating once and for all that funds appropriated by PPACA will not pay for abortions or for insurance coverage that includes abortion,” he added.

In a May letter to House members, Cardinal DiNardo urged passage of the Protect Life Act, H.R. 5111, to bring the new health reform law “into line with policies on abortion and conscience rights that have long prevailed in other federal health programs.”

Although it has 115 co-sponsors in the House, the bill has not yet received a hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“The issue of government involvement in the taking of innocent human life should not remain subject to the changeable discretion of executive officials or depend on the continued vigilance of pro-life advocates,” the cardinal said.

He said it is “vitally important for people with serious medical conditions who have been unable to obtain coverage to receive the help offered by programs” such as the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan.

But it is equally important “for them to be assured that their coverage will be life-affirming, not life-threatening,” Cardinal DiNardo added.

After reports surfaced about the Pennsylvania plan, The Associated Press reported that a description of the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool said it would include elective abortions.

Michelle Lujan Grisham, deputy director of the New Mexico plan, initially told AP that the plan would include “elective termination of pregnancy” as a covered benefit, but later said her agency was “in the process of correcting the package so it will not have elective abortion coverage.”