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Republicans move forward with bill that goes beyond Hyde in restricting abortion rights

The House squeezes in a vote on permanently banning federal funding from covering abortion care.

Participants in the Women’s March on Washington CREDIT: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Participants in the Women’s March on Washington CREDIT: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Days after millions of American participated in a nationwide “Women’s March” to push back against the Trump administration, Republicans are moving forward with legislation to further restrict abortion.

On Tuesday, the House is set to vote on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ). The bill would make it permanently illegal for federal funding to cover abortion care.

Lawmakers are particularly eager to vote on the legislation this week, timed to coincide with the annual March for Life, when crowds of anti-abortion protesters demonstrate on the National Mall. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan squeezed the House vote into a three-day legislative week.

On Friday, Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) introduced a partner bill in the Senate.

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“Our bill will permanently prohibit any taxpayer dollar from being used to pay for abortions and protect the rights for consumers to choose an insurance plan that is in line with their beliefs and values,” Roberts said.

Federal funds are already prohibited from paying for abortions under the Hyde Amendment, a rule that’s been in place since the 1970s. The Hyde Amendment primarily affects low-income women and communities of color, because it prevents Medicaid programs from covering abortion care — forcing the people who rely on Medicaid for their insurance coverage to finance the full cost of this procedure on their own.

Until now, however, the Hyde Amendment has been pushed through as a budget rider, which means it needs to be renewed every year through the budget process. Smith’s bill would make the prohibition permanent.

While this legislation is often framed as enshrining Hyde, it could actually end up having a far more sweeping effect than the Hyde Amendment currently does — running through the insurance industry and tax code like a blunt knife and cutting out any possible way that taxpayer money might go toward supporting abortion care. As such, it could also have a dramatic effect on the private insurance industry and the tax code as a whole and effectively price abortion out of reach for many American women.

Smith’s bill would require that insurance plans sold through the Affordable Care Act exchanges (also known as Obamacare) disclose whether they cover abortions, and what the embedded cost of the coverage is in the plans. It would also make small businesses pay extra taxes if they offer their employees an insurance plan that includes abortion coverage, and eliminate medical-expense deductions for abortion care except in certain rare cases.

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The plan gives people the option to purchase extra abortion coverage, if they wish. But until now, the status quo of the insurance industry has been that abortions are covered like other unanticipated medical expenses — that, after all, is one of the primary purposes of having insurance. By singling out abortion as extraordinary and paring it away from certain insurance plans, Smith’s legislation as it currently stands could have a ripple effect throughout the insurance industry as a whole.

Kierra Johnson, the Executive Director of Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), an advocacy group that’s been very involved in pushing back against Hyde, described the bill as a “cruel and sweeping legislation that makes the Hyde Amendment permanent and interferes with women’s private health insurance coverage.”

“Black women in our country are already suffering the harms of bans on abortion coverage, and rather than improving our access to necessary health services, the new Congress is obsessed with restricting abortion and doubling down on the Hyde Amendment,” she said in a statement released Tuesday. “No one in this country voted for Congress to take away our basic rights. In fact, Americans are more supportive than ever of keeping abortion legal, available, and covered by insurance.”

This isn’t the first time this bill has been introduced, and it isn’t a surprise. Smith, the House sponsor, also introduced it in previous years. The House has previously passed it, and is expected to pass it today.

In previous years, the bill wasn’t able to make it past the Senate, in part because President Obama had vowed to veto it. This time, however, the bill would go to President Trump — who vowed to the anti-abortion community that he would make the Hyde Amendment permanent.

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The legislation still requires 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster, though, and Republicans currently hold 52 Senate seats.

It’s not hard to see a theme emerging among the Republican-controlled government’s priorities in the first days of the new Trump administration.

The vote on this bill comes just one day after President Trump, surrounded by men, reinstated the so-called “global gag rule” by executive order. The gag rule prevents international organizations from receiving U.S. aid money if they so much as mention that abortion is a family planning option.

Ryan also included a provision to defund Planned Parenthood in the first steps to repeal Obamacare, and Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, has said in the past that he doesn’t believe women need free coverage for contraception. Price’s Obamacare replacement plan — one of the most detailed plans that congressional Republicans offered in the past 6 years of railing against Obama’s signature law —does not include the provision in Obamacare that requires insurance companies to cover contraceptive care for women at no additional charge.

“If anyone was wondering about the priorities of the new anti-woman Congress — they’ve shown their cards,” said Destiny Lopez, the co-director of the reproductive rights advocacy group All* Above All.

UPDATE: HR 7 passed in the House, 237–183. No Republicans voted Nay, and 3 Democrats voted Yay.