Republican Congressmen are fun to mock, make no mistake. Whether it’s Pete Sessions and Mike Fitzpatrick taking their oaths of office in front of a TV broadcasting the ceremony and thinking that made it official, or Michelle Bachmann apparently incapable of making eye contact during her State of the Union Bonus Response Speech, their antics are often prone to turn over an informed citizen’s gigglebox. However, mindful of Will Rogers’s wise quip about Congress—“When they make a joke it’s a law and when they make a law it’s a joke”—it is instructive to keep an eye on the clowns.
What’s being proposed is no laughing matter, and the form it will take seems to shift week by week. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey is the main sponsor of HR 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The title states its aim quite specifically, but the fine print radically expands that premise, preventing federal tax credits or subsidies to private insurance plans that cover abortion procedures, a move aimed right at the new health insurances exchanges coming in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act, and also placing tax penalties on individuals or entities that pay for abortion care or coverage.
From anti-abortion advocates’ point of view, this bill would be the next best thing to criminalizing the procedure nationwide. Jessica Arons, who directs the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, sees it a different way: “This bill overreaches in every possible way and would only inflame an already intense and intractable debate. More importantly, it would penalize rather than help taxpayers, impede basic government functions, and discriminate against women who are struggling to do their best in a difficult situation.”
It’s easy to disregard this back-and-forth as merely part of a debate that’s gone on in D.C. since Roe v. Wade became law of the land, but Republicans in the House are anxious to change the language of the debate. For instance, adding an adjective. HR 3 initially planned to alter the exemptions for rape to exemptions only for “forcible” rape, but after loud objections on the Democratic side of the hall and some quieter ones reported on the GOP side, consensus seemed to agree with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who opined, “‘Some kind’ of rape is not okay. It’s that simple,” and the offending word was removed.
No sooner did that controversy get tamped down than another bill aiming to restrict women’s rights surfaced, this one numbered HR 358 and also constructed to change the provisions of the new health care legislation. The so-called “Protect Life Act”, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts, would in fact endanger life by permitting a hospital to use a “health of the mother” exemption to let a pregnant woman die rather than administering an abortion.
The way things run now, and thanks to Evan Santoro’s research in Talking Points Memo online for reminding us, any hospital receiving Medicaid or Medicare funding is obliged to give emergency care to anyone who comes in, unless it can’t provide the care required, in which case the hospital is responsible for moving the patient to a hospital that can. That goes for emergency abortions as well, unless HR 358 passes, in which case a hospital choosing not to perform an abortion would not have to, but also would not be obligated to transfer the patient to another facility that would.
In such an instance, a pro-life hospital could let a woman in need of an emergency abortion die and be legally protected for the refusal of care. Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is understandably appalled by this prospect, stating, “When it comes to attacking women’s freedom and privacy, these politicians know no bounds.” For his part, Rep. Pitts seems to have his bounds well established, telling CBS News, “Abortion is not health care.”
Actually, it is, because abortion is a medical procedure, one of the most common in the country, and only a physician can make the determination that the procedure is warranted. As with many medical procedures, there are risks involved and possible emotional repercussions, but abortion is legal and a woman has the right to it.
Whether it continues to be legal and accessible depends on the vigilance of those who would keep it that way. There is gaming afoot in the halls of Congress. Some of the craftier GOP solons hope you will get exercised over the over-the-top provisions of these bills, demand their removal and, when they are withdrawn, assume that you have won a great victory. In the meantime, the less obvious provisions of these bills to restrict abortion and to keep it from being an insurable procedure could become part of the nebulous bipartisanship impetus this administration has misplayed since its inauguration. It’s generally assumed that whatever cockamamie bills pass the House will not be rubberstamped by the Senate, but with 2012 already becoming a factor, can we be certain senators fearful of being insufficiently right-of-center won’t accept abortion restrictions as a necessary price of re-election?
It has always been puzzling that the very politicians who complain the loudest about too much government intrusion upon personal liberty are first in line to use the power of government to crack down on reproductive freedom, the most personal of liberties. Had these false statesmen been among our founding fathers, they would probably have compelled Tom Jefferson to rewrite his self-evident truths to say, “All men are created equal, but women, maybe not so much…”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.