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Abortion Issue Arises in US Budget Debate

A marathon battle over current-year federal spending ended with congressional votes Thursday approving a bipartisan deal to fund the U.S. government through September. Among the many issues that arose during often-acrimonious debate was abortion: specifically, federal funding for a non-profit health organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions across the nation every year. The Senate defeated an effort to de-fund Planned Parenthood before giving final approval to the budget deal.

Amid the budget furor engulfing Washington in recent weeks were rallies and demonstrations concerning one of America’s most-divisive social issues:

Anti-abortion female: "Abortion is murder!"

Anti-abortion male: "You consider this a woman’s right to choose. Have you considered the little baby that gets killed each and every time?"

Pro-choice male: "Hello pro-choice America!"

Pro-choice female: "We are here today because some politicians on Capitol Hill are working overtime to take life-saving health care away from women."

At issue: Planned Parenthood, which receives more than $300 million in federal funds every year under a program that aims to boost the health and wellbeing of America’s poor and vulnerable.

Planned Parenthood has long been criticized by social conservatives because one of the services it provides is abortion, which is legal in the United States. Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona recently made headlines with this statement on the Senate floor.

"If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that is well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does," said Senator Kyl.

Not so, according to Planned Parenthood and its defenders, who say that the vast majority of the organization’s resources are devoted to family planning, contraception, cancer screening, and the detection and prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York points out that current law forbids federal funding of abortion.

"Federal money does not pay for abortions in this country," said Senator Gillibrand. "What they [Planned Parenthood opponents] are cutting are safety nets for poor at-risk women, for pre-cancer screenings, for pre-natal care, for early detection of sexually-transmitted diseases, for all the safety nets that keep our families safe. This is unacceptable."

Under America’s legislative process, members of Congress can propose amendments to almost any bill that comes up for a vote. Amendments that do not pertain to the goals of the primary bill and direct a policy change in another area are often called "riders". Attempts to attach controversial riders often provoke procedural battles in the Senate that can slow or even derail legislation.

The budget deal negotiated between Democratic and Republican leaders and the White House allowed for votes on several riders sought by Republicans, including one to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

Republicans argue, even if Planned Parenthood uses non-governmental funds for its abortion services, federal money should not be spent to support an abortion provider. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana:

"I recognize the sad reality that abortion-on-demand is right now legal in this country," said senator Vitter. "This debate isn’t about that. It isn’t about whether Planned Parenthood has the right to perform abortions, and it isn’t about funding true health care services. The real question before us is whether millions of pro-life [anti-abortion] taxpayers have to fund this entity."

Planned Parenthood argues, by providing contraception and family planning services, it reduces unwanted pregnancies and the demand for abortion as a whole. President Barack Obama backs Planned Parenthood’s mission, particularly in combating teenage pregnancy. He spoke at the organization’s headquarters during his 2008 campaign.

"If we reduce teen pregnancy, we can also reduce poverty," said President Obama. "The good news is that there has been a decline in the teen birth rate, in part due to the outstanding work of Planned Parenthood."

Federal funding for Planned Parenthood survived this year’s budget battle. But abortion remains one of the nation’s most contentious and divisive social issues, and is sure to arise in future legislative battles.