Wednesday's 229-189 vote was just the latest abortion debate waged in the House. In July, Republicans pushed through a ban on the late-term abortion procedure known by opponents as partial birth abortion.
Democrats criticized the measure as an assault on abortion rights that would limit access. "This measure is cynical. This measure is unconstitutional," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. "Under the legislation the administrative hospitals or HMOs could gag the doctors who work under them from discussing abortion services."
Supporters have maintained the bill is necessary to clarify entities covered by a conscience clause in current law.
The Alaska Supreme Court in 1997 ruled that a hospital in Palmer, Alaska must allow doctors to perform abortions. The court said in its ruling that the Valley Hospital, which had adopted an anti-abortion policy, qualified as a "quasi-public" entity because it received money, land and operating funds from state, local and federal governments.
"Hospitals and health care professionals should not be forced to perform or participate in abortions," the Bush administration said in a statement Wednesday. "This legislation makes clear that they may not be subjected to discrimination by the federal government, or by any state or local government ... because they oppose or choose not to participate in abortions or abortion training."
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., told lawmakers that the bill is not a rehash of the abortion debate. "The question is whether we protect the various health care organizations, whether we want to protect their right to have a choice, to even have an opinion," Akin said.
The bill's debate has spilled over into other areas of House business. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a staunch abortion foe, refused to allow the House to consider a bill reauthorizing the community health centers until lawmakers took up the abortion bill.