Politico: Abortion issue returns to House

This article first appeared online at Politico on October 12, 2011.

Abortion issue returns to House
By: Jennifer Haberkorn

The Republican-controlled House is about to wade back into the controversial issue of abortion  Thursday, even as the party’s presidential candidates largely avoid the issue.

The relative silence of the Republican candidates is mostly a sign that they’re all committed to anti-abortion positions, not that they don’t care about the issue, anti-abortion groups say.

But Republicans can’t let social conservatives feel overlooked by the focus on the tea party’s spending concerns — so they’re about to make sure those critical GOP voters know that they haven’t forgotten about their campaign pledge to block federal funding of abortions.

The House is set to vote Thursday on the Protect Life Act, legislation that would ban women from using the health reform law’s tax subsidies to purchase health plans that cover abortions. The debate will reopen an issue so divisive that it nearly killed President Barack Obama’s health reform legislation last year.

The vote comes just a few weeks after Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, demanded that the Planned Parenthood Federation of America turn over 10 years of documents as part of an investigation into whether the group spends federal money on abortions.

But while the House floor is returning to the abortion and Planned Parenthood fights for the first time since the spring, the Republican presidential candidates have barely raised the abortion issue this year.

That’s because all the Republican candidates are on the same page on the issue, according to the Family Research Council President Tony Perkins — who sees it as a sign of the strength of the anti-abortion position in Republican politics.

There was a brief flare-up over the summer after front-runner Mitt Romney refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-abortion pledge, saying that it was “overly broad and would have unintended consequences.” But he outlined his own anti-abortion views in National Review, and the controversy appears to have largely blown over.

“It’s not a point of contention. In the general [election], it will become more of an issue,” Perkins said.

It’s one of the first Republican primaries in recent history in which there hasn’t been a pro-choice candidate in the race, like a “Rudy Giuliani running,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This is basically a pro-life primary, and they’re focusing on other issues.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the House is voting on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), to follow through with the GOP’s Pledge to America from the 2010 elections.

“That was a part of our Pledge to America that we had always said that we were going to move to eliminate government funding of organizations that perform abortions,” Cantor said on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “That’s something that we said we were going to do, and we’re upholding that pledge.”

Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the legislation is merely “political” and that Democrats won’t “whip” the bill to find out where all of their members stand — instead, leaving it up to the “conscience” of each member.

The bill would ban federal funding of abortions. It would also ensure that providers have protections if they believe abortions violate their consciences and prohibit the tax subsidies in the health reform law from going toward a health plan that includes coverage of abortions except in cases of rape or incest or for the safety of the mother.

Planned Parenthood warns that the bill could allow hospitals to refuse to treat a patient whose life depends on having an abortion. The group argues that a hospital would be able to use the bill’s conscience clause to escape the federal law — the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act — that requires hospitals to treat all patients.

It’s a theory that the bill’s backers call “preposterous” — arguing that health care providers would never refuse to do what’s needed to save a patient’s life. Andrew Wimer, a Pitts spokesman, says Catholic hospitals let their doctors perform emergency procedures even if they could cause the death of an unborn child.

The bill also includes a provision that would require women who receive tax subsidies under the health reform law to buy a separate health plan if they want abortion coverage, a provision that opponents of the bill say would severely limit access.

Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood executive vice president for policy, advocacy and communications, said that “any politician who votes for this bill is literally putting politics before women’s health.”

The bill is expected to easily pass in the House, but it’s unlikely to get a vote in the Senate, which has a Democratic majority. In the meantime, it’s not going to cause any fights among the Republican presidential candidates.

“What that measure does is that ensures no taxpayer funding goes toward abortion,” Perkins said. “I don’t think you’re going to have one candidate running for president on the Republican side [who’s] going to disagree with it. I would be shocked if any of them said they disagreed.”

The issue of abortion coverage nearly derailed passage of the health reform law last year, as a group of anti-abortion Democrats threatened to withhold votes until language was inserted that banned federal funding of abortions.

Obama agreed to sign an executive order ensuring no funds would cover abortions, which pacified most of the Democrats. Republicans, and a few Democrats, however, weren’t convinced that the order was strong enough to stick.

Matt DoBias contributed to this report.

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