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Unprecedented Campaign against Reproductive Rights Begins in Congress

Despite campaigning on job creation, the economy, and limited government in the 2010 elections, after taking the majority, Republicans in the House of Representatives wasted no time in attacking reproductive rights immediately after the 112th Congress commenced. Three GOP anti-choice stalwarts—Representatives Mike Pence (R-IN), Joseph Pitts (R-PA), and Christopher Smith (R-NJ)—each introduced legislation that, if enacted, would restrict access to abortion services and affordable reproductive health care for millions of Americans. With the introduction of these bills, these congressmen and the Republican Party showed their true colors and that they are bringing the culture wars back to the halls of Congress. These measures will likely increase the number of women who seek abortions, as fewer women will have access to affordable contraception in order to prevent an unintended pregnancy. In addition, this legislation will sacrifice women’s health by severely limiting their ability to obtain a safe abortion in a timely manner.
Representative Smith initiated the onslaught of anti-choice legislation, which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called “the most comprehensive and radical assault on women’s health in our lifetime,” when he introduced H.R. 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.[1] This bill was deemed important enough to be the third piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by the Republican majority, and it received the first hearing in the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution in 2011, despite the fact that federal funding for abortion has been prohibited by Congress except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the woman since 1976. The legislation would “deny tax credits and benefits to employers who offer health insurance to their staff if that coverage includes abortion access,” even if that coverage is paid for separately from the primary policy.[2] In addition, individuals and some small businesses that purchase health insurance that covering abortion would become ineligible to receive tax credits for the cost of the policies. Individual citizens also would be unable to use funds from a flexible spending account for health care expenses to pay for abortions for themselves or family members, as funds for such accounts are collected prior to taxes being withheld from workers’ salaries.
The most controversial aspect of Representative Smith’s bill is that, as introduced, it would limit federal funding of any kind for abortions resulting from rape to only “forcible” attacks. As such, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act would force a survivor of date rape, “rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol,” and “rapes of women with limited mental capacity,” as well as an incest survivor over the age of 18, to carry a pregnancy resulting from the assault to term if she is unable to pay for an abortion.[3] Under current law, “federal Medicaid funds (and other [Department of Health and Human Services] funding) [may] be used to terminate only those pregnancies that threaten the life of the woman or are the result of rape or incest.”[4] Federal government funds were used to subsidize the cost of only 191 abortions in 2006, the last year for which data are available.[5] The implication that any rapes are not “forcible” has been derided and lampooned widely in the press, notably by Kristen Schall on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Schall acerbically proclaimed that the “free abortion ride is over,” mocking “Republicans [for] finally closing the glaring rape loophole in our health care system [given] how many drugged, underage, or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system.”[6] While a spokesman for Representative Smith asserted that “the modifier ‘forcible’ will be dropped so that the exemption covers all forms of rape, as well as cases of incest and the endangerment of the life of the mother,” the alteration still had not been made a full month following that statement.[7]
House Republicans’ anti-choice barrage continued when Representative Pence introduced H.R. 217, which seeks “to amend title X of the Public Health Service Act to prohibit family planning grants from being awarded to any entity that performs abortions.”[8] The bill would most dramatically impact Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide, despite the fact that abortions accounted for merely “3 percent of the patient services that Planned Parenthood offered in 2008” and none of these procedures were paid for with federal dollars. Federal grants, including approximately $80 million in Title X funding, provided one-third of Planned Parenthood’s budget for fiscal year 2009.[9] By contrast, “contraception accounts for 35 percent; testing for sexually transmitted diseases, 34 percent; [and] cancer screening and prevention, 17 percent” of the services that Planned Parenthood clinics provide their patients, who number “5 million women annually, the vast majority of them low-income.”[10] Hospitals are exempt from this prohibition, unless they do not “provide funds to any non-hospital entity that performs an abortion,” exempting abortions that result from rape or incest, or are necessary to save the life of the woman.[11] H.R. 217 is merely one of Representative Pence’s ideological attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. He introduced similar measures in 2007 and 2009, and sponsored a successful amendment in the House of Representatives that would bar Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its affiliates from receiving any federal funding in Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations legislation that is still making its way through Congress.
Finally, Representative Pitts introduced H.R. 358, the Protect Life Act, which would “prohibit federal funding for abortions under the new national health-care law” and “prevent funding from being withheld from institutions that are opposed to providing abortions.”[12] The second provision is particularly chilling, as it would supersede the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Enacted in 1986 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, this legislation allows hospitals to refuse to provide an abortion on ideological grounds, even if the procedure is necessary in order to save a pregnant woman’s life. EMTALA requires all hospitals that receive federal funding—including Medicare and Medicaid payments; in other words, almost every hospital in the country—to provide necessary emergency care to all patients unless unable to do so, in which case the hospital must stabilize a patient and transfer him or her to a hospital that can provide such care. In addition to giving hospitals the right to refuse to terminate a pregnancy even in emergency circumstances, the Protect Life Act does not mandate that those hospitals transfer pregnant women to a facility willing to provide them the lifesaving care that they require.
“It is unconscionable that House Republicans have ignored completely the promise they made to the American people to focus on creating jobs and strengthening our economy,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “Instead they have devoted precious time and energy to these extreme anti-choice, anti-woman, and anti-family bills. SIECUS’ fervent hope is that reason will triumph over ideology and that these bills will die a swift death rather than robbing women of the ability to access vital health care and effecting catastrophic impacts on women and their families.”

[1] Amanda Terkel, “Nancy Pelosi: Women’s Rights Face Greatest Threat ‘In Our Lifetime,’” Huffington Post, 10 February 2011, accessed 1 March 2011, <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nick Baumann, “The House GOP’s Plan to Redefine Rape,” Mother Jones, 28 January 2011, accessed 1 March 2011, <>.

[4] Adam Sonfield et al., Public Funding for Family Planning, Sterilization and Abortion Services, FY 1980–2006 (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2008), accessed 7 March 2010, <>, 10.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] “Rape Victim Abortion Funding,” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central, 2 February 2011, accessed 7 March 2011, <>.

[7] Jonathan Allen, “GOP Loses ‘Forcible Rape Language,” Politico, 3 February 2011, accessed 1 March 2011, <>.

[8] H.R. 217, 112th Cong. (2011), accessed 1 March 2011, <>.

[9] Sarah Kliff, “Mike Pence’s War on Planned Parenthood,” Politico, 16 February 2011, accessed 1 March 2011, <>.

[10] Ruth Marcus, “Side Effects of the GOP’s War on Family Planning,” Washington Post, 23 February 2011, accessed 1 March 2011, <>.

[11] H.R. 217, 112th Cong., § 1009(c), 2011, accessed 7 March 2011, <>.

[12] Felicia Sonmez, “Abortion Debate Heats Up on Capitol Hill,” Washington Post, 8 February 2011, accessed 1 March 2011, <>.