Republicans tucked an irrelevant anti-abortion provision into the tax bill

Nearly 100 pages into the bill, the GOP attempts to redefine personhood.

Pro-life activists converge in front of the Supreme Court, Jan. 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Pro-life activists converge in front of the Supreme Court, Jan. 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The far-reaching implications of the Republican tax plan may include a sneaky attempt to use the sweeping piece of legislation to attack abortion rights.

Nearly 100 pages into the House version of the bill — and likely in the Senate bill as well, though Republicans have not yet released the text of the bill to the public, despite their intent to vote on it Friday afternoon — Republicans attempt to codify an anti-choice priority known as fetal personhood. The provision is, on its face, a move to allow fetuses to be named as beneficiaries of popular college savings plans known as 529 accounts.

“Nothing shall present an unborn child from being treated as a designated beneficiary or an individual under this section,” the bill reads.

It goes on to define the term “unborn child” as a “child in utero,” and then, even more explicitly, “The term ‘child in utero’ means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”

Screenshot of the bill
Screenshot of the bill

President Donald Trump has called the Republican tax plan a “big beautiful, Christmas present” for the country, and, at least where anti-choice activists are concerned, he’s right.

Anti-choice activists believe that if fetuses are legally defined as people — “fetal personhood” — then abortion will be outlawed. Their argument rests in the 14th Amendment, which says that “no person shall be deprived of life… without due process of law.” Activists at the state and federal level have attempted to pass legislation and ballot initiatives in recent years that would codify fetal personhood, but the attempts have been largely unsuccessful. Just two states, Kansas and Missouri, have “personhood” language on their books.

The Oklahoma and Alaska Supreme Courts both struck down fetal personhood ballot initiatives — in 2012 and 2013 respectively — on the grounds, as the Oklahoma Supreme Court put it, that the initiative was “clearly unconstitutional.”

Nonetheless, Congressional Republicans buried the definition deep in a tax plan likely to become law, and anti-choice advocates are applauding the move.

“By this simple measure, more families will start accruing the benefits of a 529 account earlier in the child’s life,” anti-abortion activist group Susan B. Anthony List wrote in a letter earlier this month.

“Every time someone asks an expectant mom or dad when their baby is due, or if it’s a boy or a girl, they recognize the fundamental humanity and reality of the child in the womb,” the letter went on. “This fact — obvious in everyday life as parents talk about their child and make plans for their future — reflects a trend across the spectrum of American law and public policy to affirm the significance and value of the human being growing in the womb.”

One of the stranger things about the provision is that it doesn’t actually change when parents can begin using a 529 to save for their child’s education. Under current law, parents can begin putting money into a 529 under their own name at any time and then, once their child is born, transfer the account to their child.

This means that, ultimately, the 529 provision in the Republican tax plan changes nothing about 529 accounts and exists only to codify fetal personhood, and such a definition, codified in federal law, could have scary effects for abortion rights down the line.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) railed against the fetal personhood provision in a statement released last month.

“This is a back-door attempt to establish personhood from the moment of conception,” she said. “Even in the tax reform debate, Republicans could not resist including offensive provisions to appease an extremist minority. The tax code is no place to define what constitutes an ‘unborn child.’ What’s next, giving a Social Security number to a zygote?”

The fetal personhood provision is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the implications of the GOP tax plan, which would raise taxes on middle class people making between $40,000 and $50,000 a year by more than $5 billion, while cutting taxes by more than $5.5 billion for people making more than $1 million a year.

The plan also repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will leave an additional 13 million people without health insurance over the next decade. The bill could also trigger a $25 billion cut to Medicare, the health insurance program that offers affordable coverage to seniors.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the plan would trigger a cut to Medicaid, not Medicare.