When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act last year, it was thanks in no small part to faith leaders who spoke out in favor of the principle that all people deserve access to quality health care. People of faith also consistently set the record straight in response to political operatives who tried to spread the insidious lie that the legislation would open the floodgates of taxpayer funding for abortion.
Pro-life and pro-choice leaders alike supported the landmark legislation, knowing all too well that our health care system was broken. Because of the Affordable Care Act, our health care system is now on a more sustainable, more moral footing -- so long as the law survives ongoing efforts by Congressional Republicans to dismantle it.
And misinformation about abortion funding hasn't gone away. Religious right leaders made this deceptive argument the centerpiece of their political campaign work in 2010, aiming a barrage of false attacks at pro-life Members of Congress who voted for the Affordable Care Act. Courageous legislators who voted their conscience and provided the critical final votes for passage were branded as sellouts who abandoned their values, and many went down to defeat on election day.
This week the House GOP leadership will keep the drumbeat going by bringing H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" to a vote. Proponents of the bill claim that it is necessary to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion through "Obamacare." However, the Hyde Amendment has prohibited federal funding of abortion for decades and independent fact-checks have made perfectly clear that both the legislation itself and the accompanying executive order from President Obama prohibit any federal funds going towards abortion services.
In terms of policy, H.R. 3 is a solution desperately seeking a problem.
But politically speaking, it gives opponents of health insurance reform another opportunity to continue hammering home their false message that we need new laws to ensure that "Obamacare" doesn't fund abortion. This week, the Family Research Council Super PAC is running ads in targeted Congressional districts to trumpet the lie.
The truth of the matter is that H.R. 3 breaks sharply with longstanding federal abortion policy in ways that could significantly impact people's health insurance and set a precedent that jeopardizes federal funding for many faith-based organizations. Proponents of the legislation claim it will permanently codify the Hyde Amendment, which is renewed annually and prohibits federal funding of abortion services except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. But H.R. 3 would also create financial penalties for individuals whose insurance plans cover abortion services (something the majority of insurance plans currently do, and have done without arousing controversy during pro-choice and pro-life Presidential administrations in the past). The bill would discontinue all tax subsidies to private health insurance plans that cover abortion, even if abortion coverage is entirely paid for by private funds, and it would impose tax penalties on those that pay for abortion coverage. In other words, it would create incentives for health insurers to not cover abortion services at all. Pro-life leaders who support this tax increase and departure from the status quo should say so.
Furthermore, H.R. 3 also risks bringing about problematic unintended consequences, which Third Way helpfully lays out in this memo:
In particular, the bill would take the unprecedented step of defining "federal funding" to include the benefit of a tax exemption or other tax expenditure.
This expanded definition presents serious ramifications that could potentially threaten a wide array of other activities currently governed by similar restrictions to the ones that have regulated federal funding for abortion.
For example, numerous religious organizations receive federal funds to run activities such as adoption services, homeless shelters and food banks. These religious organizations are trusted to segregate the federal funds they receive to provide social services from private funds used for religious practice and proselytizing. Churches and religious organizations also receive tax exemptions in order to ensure a separation between church and state as protected by the Constitution. By significantly widening the definition of federal funding to include activities that have an attenuated connection to federal funds, the bill calls into question, politically and perhaps even legally, many other areas like these where separation of funds or other mechanisms have been seen as sufficient to protect private funds from being comingled with federal monies. And by labeling tax exemption as "federal funding," it could even potentially threaten tax exemptions for churches and other religious institutions by transforming those exemptions into government support for those entities.
H.R. 3's numerous potential impacts, both intended and unintended, need to be publicly acknowledged and honestly debated in order to ensure that the actions of Congress reflect the will of the American people -- pro-life and pro-choice alike. People of good will who disagree on the morality and legality of abortion can find common ground that advances the shared priorities of both without sacrificing the priorities of either. But that can only happen if we defuse rampant misinformation about the Affordable Care Act's prohibitions on abortion funding.