House Judiciary Committee Passes Sweeping Anti-Choice Bill

The bill marked up today has next to no chance of passing the Senate in this session, but that doesn’t mean House passage poses no threat.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus Office of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter

On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 7, a sweeping anti-choice bill, on a straight party-line vote, referring the legislation to the Rules Committee.

In the best of worlds, a mark-up session of a bill in the United States Congress is a study in the art of compromise. Members of one party introduce a bill, and members of the other party—or perhaps even of the same party—offer amendments to make the bill more acceptable to their constituents. But it’s been a long time since the House operated in the best of worlds, and so today’s Judiciary Committee mark-up of HR 7 was an exercise in point-making for all concerned.

Since the backlash election of 2010 seated a Tea Party-driven Republican majority in the House, anti-choice bills have been a priority on the legislative agenda. “Compromise” became more than a dirty word; it’s a punishable offense at the hands of leaders of the outside spending groups responsible for seating the Tea Party Republicans.

Consequently, as 2014 began, the House was back in session only days before HR 7, the so-called No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, was introduced. Opponents object to the bill’s very name, noting that currently no taxpayer funding of abortion exists, thanks to the longstanding Hyde Amendment, and related amendments.

Like HR 1797, the 20-week abortion ban passed by the House in June, the bill marked up today has next to no chance of passing the Senate in this session, but that doesn’t mean House passage poses no threat.

Even in the absence of a like-minded Senate, House action on a bill often serves as a model for bills in state legislatures. And in a mid-term election year such as this, House members, who are all up for re-election in November, are playing to their party’s base, the most likely voters to turn out when there’s no presidential contest on the ballot. For many Republicans, redistricting by right-wing legislatures has them looking over their shoulders for possible primary challenges from far-right candidates. For them, the legislative process is a show-and-tell of their right-wing bona fides.

“Today’s mark-up, if you think about it, launched the kick-off on the War on Women II,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.), at a press conference called by the House Pro-Choice Caucus, just before the mark-up session commenced.

Among HR 7’s many provisions is one that would make permanent an existing prohibition exclusively for the District of Columbia that forbids the local government from using its own local tax revenue to help low-income women pay for abortions. (States can choose to fund such abortions, using their own taxing authority.) Norton, who represents the district as its congressional delegate, had asked to address the subcommittee on the Constitution last week at a hearing on the bill; her request was denied.

Other provisions of the bill would forbid women from using the pre-tax dollars in Health Savings Accounts to pay for abortions, and deny them any federal subsidy they might otherwise be entitled to under the Affordable Care Act if they purchased an insurance plan that covered abortion. HR 7 would also use the tax code to penalize small businesses that provide insurance plans that include abortion coverage to their employees.

These provisions are designed to discourage health insurance companies from including abortion coverage in their health plans at all, say the bill’s opponents, since they would create a complicated regulatory environment for plans that offer such coverage on federal and state exchanges. Easier just to drop the coverage, the thinking goes.

“This bill, which has been tried before and has failed over and over again is a frontal assault on a woman’s right to have full reproductive health care,” said Pro-Choice Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO). The 2011 version of the bill was infamous for its attempt to redefine rape. And although the current version allows exceptions to the tax penalties for victims of rape, that exception leaves those who claim it vulnerable to an audit by the Internal Revenue Service if asked to prove the claim.

“Little Ladies” Not Going Back

Among the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, there’s not a single woman—a point not lost on the women of the Pro-Choice Caucus. “A woman is in charge of General Motors, but the men on this Judiciary [committee] believe that women are going to allow them decide what our health care ought to be,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the caucus’ other co-chair. “It’s almost back to the old days: ‘Tell the little lady what she can do.’ Well ladies aren’t going to put up with that anymore … We are as determined as we ever were that we will not go back.”

Slaughter also noted that, to the best of her knowledge, no group of women had ever lobbied to put an end to vasectomies.

As the mark-up session opened, the room was filled with activists, some wearing purple NARAL t-shirts, pink Planned Parenthood attire, or the white-and-green t-shirts of the All Above All campaign. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the committee’s ranking member, began by expressing his concerned that Title II of the bill, the section that contains the tax penalties, had been determined to not be under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, and was placed under the purview of the Ways and Means Committee, which had not scheduled a mark-up of the section. If no mark-up took place in Ways and Means, the bill’s opponents will have no opportunity to offer amendments to that part of HR 7.

Franks: Bill About Abortion, Not Pregnant Women

When Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) couldn’t say whether Ways and Means would convene a mark-up, Nadler offered an amendment that would have replaced the entire text of HR 7 with the text of Nadler’s own Pregnant Workers Protection Act (HR 1795), which has languished in committee.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) objected, noting that Nadler’s amendment would fall under the jurisdiction of other committees. On top of that, Franks said, “The amendment also goes outside the subject matter of the bill at hand by dealing with pregnant women and workforce. Mr. Chairman, the subject matter of this bill is taxpayer funding for abortion.”

That amendment, of course, had zero chance of a passing vote in the committee, as did every other amendment offered by Democrats. Essentially, having determined that anything they offered, even if a mere tweak to HR 7, would be voted down by the Republican majority, Democrats offered a wish list of measures, painting a picture of the world they believe their constituents would like to see.

Whose Hippocratic Oath?

When Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) offered an amendment that would ensure that women seeking reproductive health care would receive “reliable information about safe and legal medical procedures from the physician,” committee Chair Goodlatte took great exception.

“This amendment threatens to gut the bill by making it subject to unknown and unnamed ‘principles of informed consent and the ethical standards of health-care professionals,’” Goodlatte said. “Certainly it can be argued that abortion clinics routinely violate the rules of informed consent when they tell women that their baby is simply a blob of tissue.”

The committee chairman went on to assert that the Hippocratic Oath—the statement of ethics many physicians swear to upon commencement of their medical practice—expressly forbids giving “an abortive remedy” to a woman. However, the modern version of the oath that appears on the website of the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries makes no such statement. That version was drafted in 1964, according to the website.

When Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) offered an amendment that would allow an exception for the health of the pregnant woman, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) took issue, saying, “A general long-lasting health exception would gut the provision because courts have interpreted the word ‘health’ to include any reason for desiring an abortion.”

And on it went. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) offered an amendment that would have inserted the words “a woman’s constitutionally protected right to” before the word “abortion” every time it appeared in the bill.

The mark-up finally ended four and a half hours after it began, with not a single amendment offered by pro-choice Democrats having made it into the bill. In the end, both sides made their points, and the bill was “favorably referred” to the House for future action.