For the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), it was a good day in the U.S. House of Representatives, when the all-male Subcommittee on the Constitution gave the bishops’ current top lobbyist and former anti-choice spokesperson the chance to express their support on Thursday for a sweeping anti-abortion bill that would, among other obstructionist measures, single out for tax penalties women who exercised their Constitutional right to end a pregnancy.
Because Republicans have a majority in the House, Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks (R-AZ), was able to use his prerogative to choose two witnesses while the Democrats were left with one. Presenting testimony in favor of HR 7, dubbed the No Taxpayer Funding of Abortion Act, were Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB’S Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, and Helen M. Alvaré, professor of law at George Mason University, and former spokesperson for the same USCCB secretariat.
Susan Wood, associate professor of health policy at George Washington University, testified in opposition to the bill. Wood is a former official of the Federal Drug Administration who resigned in protest in 2005 over what she saw as political interference in the approval process for the emergency contraception drug Plan B One-Step.
Forbidden to testify, despite the request of ranking member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in the House. Because HR 7 would permanently bar the district from using revenue collected through local, not federal, taxes to fund abortions for poor women (an option that remains open to the states), Norton had asked to address the committee for five minutes. Instead, she was left to sit in the audience while the men on the committee argued over whether House rules permit her testimony.
Asked to cite a rule that would prohibit her testimony, Franks and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) dredged up a citation that prohibits House members who are not members of the committee from asking questions of witnesses—a privilege Norton did not seek.
“There is no rule—there is no rule of the House, no rule of the committee” that would have prohibited Norton’s testimony, Nadler told RH Reality Check after the hearing. In fact, he said, that very committee has, in the past, conducted hearings in which the witnesses were all members of Congress who did not sit on the committee.
HR 7 is a revamped version of a bill first introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) in 2011 as a kind of payback for the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without the Stupak amendment, which would have prevented the use of the federal health-care subsidy for any insurance plan that included coverage for abortion. (That initial version, then known as HR 3, is best remembered for its attempt to redefine rape but, like its successor, it contained many other provisions that would roll back women’s rights.)
While Republicans on the committee sought to paint the bill as simply making permanent the existing prohibition of federal spending on abortion via the Hyde Amendment and similar measures, the legislation goes much further, and appears to be designed to place a burden on the private insurance industry with regard to health-care policies that cover abortion, in an effort to discourage companies from offering such policies.
Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, of which the Constitution Subcommittee is a part, offered a paean to the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds for abortion in appropriations by the Health and Human Services Committee.
“The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Hyde Amendment has led to as many as 675,000 fewer abortions each year,” Goodlatte said. “Let that sink in for a few precious moments. The policy we are discussing today has likely given America the gift of millions more children and, consequently, millions more mothers, millions more fathers, millions more lifetimes, and trillions more loving gestures and other human gifts in all their diverse forms. What a stunningly wondrous legacy.”
In fact, the Hyde Amendment often leads poor women to have their abortions later in their pregnancies than they would have chosen, since it takes them a while to accumulate the funds needed, thus increasing the cost to them. After Susan Wood made the point in her testimony that these later abortions can cost as much as a month’s rent or more, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked her to explain, quipping that he needed to understand whether she was talking about a woman needing to have an abortion every month.
The current version of the Smith bill would also prohibit women from using the pre-tax dollars in their health savings accounts (HSAs) to cover the cost of an abortion, and revives the Stupak Amendment’s denial of an ACA subsidy for the purchase of any plan that covers abortion.
In her testimony, Susan Wood explained it this way:
Adding to the restrictions already in place in the ACA, further changing the tax credits for individuals and for small employers providing health care coverage could lead to significant changes in the health insurance coverage that women have had, potentially creating a “tipping point” in the nature of health insurance whereby women lose abortion coverage. It is the nature of health insurance that insurers may no longer provide plans that include coverage which would come with burdensome regulatory requirements such as proposed in H.R. 7. Since approximately 60 percent of women of reproductive age, or 37 million women, get their health coverage through private insurance, this legislation could have a profound effect.
Richard Doerflinger, the bishops’ lobbyist, said in his written testimony that he hoped that Wood’s prediction of a “tipping point” proved correct; that was the point of the legislation.
“As the Supreme Court noted approvingly three decades ago,” said Doerflinger, “the purpose of a federal funding ban is precisely to use the government’s funding power to encourage childbirth over abortion.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) challenged Helen Alvaré, who asserted that poor women largely oppose abortion, to address polling that most anti-choice women also support the death penalty, which is at odds with Catholic doctrine. Alvaré replied that she personally opposed the death penalty.
Cohen also asked Alvaré how the bill’s burden on the District of Columbia squared with the GOP’s allowance, during the government shutdown, that the district could spend its own local tax revenues to continue government services.
“I’m not actually political on these questions,” Alvaré replied. “I try to take a principled or a legal or an empirical view.”
Cohen then addressed the USCCB’s Doeflinger, asking him how hard he is working to push for an extension of emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, in light of Pope Francis’ comments on income inequality and his comments, made to a Jesuit publication, that prelates should be less obsessed with railing against abortion.
“We are very much in favor of the War on Poverty,” Doeflinger said, after listing a number of church efforts on behalf of poor people, “but we also insist—and so does Pope Francis—that that War on Poverty must never become a war on the children of the poor. Pope Francis has said it is not progressive to try to solve our problems by eliminating a human life.”
After the hearing concluded, RH Reality Check caught up with Trent Franks, the subcommittee chairman, to ask him why he chose as his two witnesses people who were affiliated with the political arm of the Roman Catholic Church.
“We chose those witnesses because of their knowledge on the issue,” Franks said. “You know, both the Democrats and the Republicans choose different witnesses, and certainly their position on the issues is a central consideration.”