Byline: Felicia Sonmez
The renewed debate over federal funding of abortion continued on Wednesday as a second House committee took up the issue in a hearing on a Republican-sponsored measure.
The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health heard testimony on H.R. 358, the "Protect Life Act," a measure sponsored by the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.).
The measure would prohibit federal funding for abortions under the national health-care law and also would prevent funding from being withheld from institutions that refuse to provide abortions. Abortion-rights advocates argue that the bill would allow health-care providers to refuse to provide abortions in cases where the woman's life is threatened and would prohibit women from using their own money to obtain insurance that covers a range of reproductive care.
Testifying at the hearing were Helen Alvare, associate professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law; Douglas Johnson, federal legislative director at the National Right to Life Committee; and Sara Rosenbaum, chairwoman of the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University.
At the committee hearing, House Democrats portrayed the Pitts bill as extreme and argued that it would do more than preventfederal funds from going toward abortions - something that Democrats argue isn't happening in the first place.
"The debate today isn't about tax dollars or provider conscience," Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said. "Instead, it's about chipping away at the legal rights of women."
Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, co-chairman of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, contended that the bill would mean that "anybody who purchases an insurance policy ... that covers all reproductive services now cannot have any kind of tax relief," a move DeGette argued would represent the "most vast restriction of woman's right to choose."
"It's not about direct federal funding of abortion," DeGette said. "We don't have that. We don't have that. What it's about is saying these indirect tax credits will now be interpreted as federal funding."
Republicans on the panel defended the measure. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) argued that the health care law as it currently stands has loopholes that would allow for federal funding of abortion, something that the Pitts bill would "clearly and statutorily" prevent.
In addition, Upton said, the measure would protect health care professionals' right of conscience and "ensures that private insurance companies are not forced to cover abortion."
Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess, chairman of the Congressional Health Care Caucus and a former ob/gyn, said that by permanently codifying the Hyde Amendment, which Congress usually renews annually, the Pitts bill "extends the status quo."
"I think it is important to codify with this language that we are responsible for the judicious use of taxpayer dollars," Burgess said.
Neither the Pitts bill nor a separate measure sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has yet been scheduled for a vote, according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).