Abortion War Heats Up In The States: Tennessee Becomes Second State To Strip Abortion From Exchanges

Yesterday, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) declined to either sign or veto a bill that prohibits health care plans participating in the state-based insurance exchange from offering “abortion services,” tacitly accepting the measure into law. Despite repeated attempts by Democrats to insert the language, the final text of the bill “makes no mention of any exception for the case of rape, incest or if the mother’s health is in danger,” as required by federal law (which provides exceptions for rape, incest and life endangerment, but not for health)

Tennessee is now the second state to officially prohibit private insurers from providing abortion coverage, even if it’s paid for out of private funds. The opt-out measure is part of a broader conservative effort, coordinated by Americans United for Life (AUL), a national anti-abortion group that released model legislation immediately after the law passed.

“Currently, 29 have either introduced an opt-out bill, are planning to introduce a bill shortly, or are laying the ground work to introduce a bill as soon as their legislative calendars permit,” AUL boasts on its website. “Some states, with our help, are going even farther than preventing insurance plans that cover abortions from participating in their state exchanges. One positive outcome from the 2009-2010 health care reform debate is that many more Americans are now aware that a large number of private insurance plans, even their own, cover elective abortions,” the group argues.

Indeed, as the Wonk Room has been reporting, states like Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Utah have used this political moment as an opportunity to foist pet restrictions on abortion, even as millions of poor women are more in need of the procedure than ever before. One such provision, vetoed by the governor but then passed again by the Oklahoma legislature, protects a doctor “from being sued if he or she chooses not to tell a woman that the baby she is carrying has a birth defect.” From HB2656:

It is the intent of the Legislature that the birth of a child does not constitute a legally recognizable injury and that it is contrary to public policy to award damages because of the birth of a child or for the rearing of that child….In a wrongful life action or a wrongful birth action, no damages may be recovered for any condition that existed at the time of a child’s birth if the claim is that the defendant’s act or omission contributed to the mother’s not having obtained an abortion.

The text of the bill is so incredibly broad and poorly worded, it gives doctors the powers to “withhold information, mislead or even blatantly lie to a pregnant woman,” if the doctor believes it would lead her to exercise her legally protected right and undergo an abortion. Women, in other words, no longer have the right in Oklahoma to know what’s happening to their bodies or their offspring, nor do they deserve to be fully informed of their medical conditions.

The bill seems reactionary even for a conservative state like Oklahoma — which may be competing for the title with Arizona — and it leads me to believe that not all lawmakers actually understood what they were voting for here. AUL has seized on the post health reform momentum to ram through abortion bills in the final days of the legislative sessions, leaving some lawmakers to rely on “assurances” and assumptions.

Lawmakers who voted for the Tennessee measure, for instance, “said they thought the bill was primarily intended to ensure that taxpayer dollars would not be used for abortion coverage in the state health insurance exchange.” In reality, the legislation goes much further. “My ‘yes’ vote was based on that it didn’t change anything in Tennessee law…and that it’s consistent with what we’ve been doing in the legislature for the past several years,” said one legislator who voted for the bill. Lawmakers also said they only voted for the bill based on assurances “that the legislation does allow for exceptions, in keeping with federal law on federal funding for abortion.”