While most of the political attention yesterday was focused on the State of the Union, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would discourage private insurance companies from offering abortion coverage.
The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" passed on a 227-188 vote.
Here's what's going on here: Under the Hyde Amendment, current federal law prohibits tax dollars from being spent on abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. That means if you're a low-income woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy, you can't count on Medicaid to cover the costs. (Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin got tangled up in the whole "legitimate rape" trouble in 2012 because they were working to redefine rape under the provisions of the Hyde Amendment.)
But the Hyde amendment's limits are not enough for abortion opponents, who are now targeting insurance coverage of abortion. Basically, they are arguing that companies that provide abortion coverage as part of their employee benefits should not get a tax deduction for that expense, because allowing the deduction is subsidizing—in a very small way—abortion services. And now that people are getting subsidies to buy health insurance on the exchanges, anti-abortion activists say that tax dollars are subsidizing abortion if the insurance coverage includes the procedure. The bill also prohibits anyone from using their "flex spending plan" to cover the cost of an abortion.
So the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" is designed to discourage employers and citizens from purchasing plans that cover abortion, which in turn will discourage insurance companies from providing the coverage, although people could buy entirely separate abortion coverage. (Here's a dirty little secret: Insurance companies don't mind covering abortion services—as well as contraception coverage—because it is a lot cheaper than covering the costs of bringing an unwanted pregnancy to term, not to mention the cost of insuring a child who may or may not be well cared for. So if you're arguing that you don't want to cover contraception for women because you believe immoral behavior is driving up your healthcare costs, just ask yourself how much those costs will go up with unprotected sex results in unwanted pregnancy.)
Back to the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act": Republican backers of the legislation don't want headlines that accuse them of wanting to prohibit abortion in cases of rape or incest, so they've included a provision saying that you can deduct the medical expenses of an abortion if you've been raped. And just who is responsible for determining whether you've been raped? As Joann Weiner writes in the Washington Post, it's evidently the beloved IRS:
H.R. 7, which is sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), would change the tax code so that individuals may only deduct medical expenses related to abortion in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of life.
That provision seems pretty innocuous until you stop and ask: Who’s supposed to decide when a medical expense is related to a pregnancy caused by rape or incest?
Supporters of H.R. 7 — the bill has 164 co-sponsors, including 11 women and four Democrats — would give that authority to the Internal Revenue Service. Yes, that’s right. The same organization that has been vilified for targeting certain organizations with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names to help determine whether they qualify for tax-exempt status will be able to target individuals to make sure that they’re not improperly claiming deductions for an abortion that wasn’t due to rape, incest or to save the mother’s life.
Should the Internal Revenue Service have the authority to ask a woman to prove that she’s been raped?
Southern Arizona Democrats spoke out against the bill. Congressman Ron Barber:
I stand in support of every woman’s right to be able to choose what is best for her and her family. And I stand ready to protect and preserve the ability of every woman to make her own health care decisions with her doctor and without — without — the interference of politicians in Washington.
I am focused on growing the economy and helping to find jobs for the millions of Americans who are unemployed,” Barber said today. “Those are the topics that Congress should be addressing instead of dead-end legislation that hurts working families and rolls back the rights of women across Southern Arizona and this country.
Congressman Raul Grijalva:
Our country faces big economic problems that need serious congressional attention. This bill is the furthest thing from the American people’s needs, wants or interests, and I think the majority knows it. If this is the tone they want to set for 2014, that’s their prerogative, but my progressive colleagues and I are going to keep working to create jobs. I think that’s what the American public wants Congress to do, and I think they’re right.
Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick voted against the legislation. Kirkpatrick spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson told The Range via email: "Today's vote was yet another dead-end attempt by the far right to have the government make decisions that belong between a woman and her doctor."
We've reached out to the Republican challengers to Barber and Kirkpatrick to find out how they would have voted on the legislation. We'll let you know when we hear back.