HARRISBURG – The state House gave bipartisan support to a bill that would block insurance plans offered through the state's new health insurance exchanges from covering abortions.

Abortions would still be allowed in the event of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother was at risk, in line with other state laws governing abortion through state or federally subsidized insurance programs. The exchanges are set to begin operating in 2014 as part of the federal health care reform law.

The bill was pitched by Republicans as a necessary step to prevent state and federal tax dollars from being used for abortion, bringing plans offered through the state exchange in line with existing state and federal law.  But Democrats called it an expansion of governmental regulation over health care choices of Pennsylvanians who will be using the health exchanges.

"It certainly flies in the face of any ideology or any party that claims to support a free market," said state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia.

After a contentious three hours of debate, the chamber approved the bill with a vote of 144-53. The bill moves to the state Senate for consideration.

State Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, sponsor of the bill, said the issue was not whether abortion should be legal or not, but whether taxpayers in the state should have to fund a procedure that they view as morally or religiously wrong.

"This bill does not limit abortions.  This bill maintains the status quo for the funding of abortions in Pennsylvania," she said.

Other state-funded health insurance options in Pennsylvania are already blocked by state law from funding abortions, and federal programs like Medicaid have similar restrictions.

When the federal health care reform law was passed in March 2010, it included a provision allowing states to opt out of covering abortion in the state-level exchanges.

So far, 17 other states have done so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Republican arguments that the bill would prevent taxpayer funding for abortions were short-circuited on Monday, when the House Appropriations Committee released its fiscal analysis of the bill.  It showed that there would be no costs or savings to the state by passing the measure.

"Not a dime of commonwealth money is being implicated one way or the other because of this bill," said state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks.

He said the only issue was whether a private individual has the right to purchase private insurance to cover abortions – even if they are making that purchase through a health-care exchange.

Still, Republicans argued the bill is necessary because the federal exchanges are being set up with tax money and some of the plans offered through the exchanges will be subsidized with federal funds.

"It does not limit a woman's ability to choose to have an abortion," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. "The bill simply maintains the status quo of public funding – none – in Pennsylvania."

There were more than 38,000 abortions performed in Pennsylvania in 2008, according to the most recent information from the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit that studies health issues.

Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.