Saturday marked the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision declaring that a woman's right to an abortion is constitutionally protected. The anniversary is being marked by opponents of abortion rights, who are holding their annual March for Life on the National Mall today.
Abortion rights opponents have a lot to cheer about this year, in large part because the new Congress includes a greater percentage of lawmakers that are on their side. House Republicans last week introduced two bills to scale back federal involvement in abortion services, and House Speaker John Boehner called the issue a top priority.
Republican Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, a sponsor of one of the bills, said today on "Washington Unplugged" that "the momentum is on the pro-life side" -- and that there's no reason President Obama should reject his legislation.
Pitts, head of the Health panel in the Energy and Commerce Committee, sponsored the Protect Life Act, a bill that would restrict federal funding of any kind for abortions in any of the programs enacted in President Obama's health care reforms. His legislation was introduced in conjunction with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)'s "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," which would impose a permanent bar on any federal spending for abortion care, including tax credits for plans that cover abortion.
The bills also include so-called "conscience protections" that would empower courts and ensure that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals can opt out from having to perform abortions.
Republicans have argued that the two bills would simply codify the government's commitment to the Hyde amendment, which bans federal funding of abortions. (Lawmakers need to renew the amendment each year.) Mr. Obama signed an executive order last year to clarify that the new health care reforms will follow the Hyde amendment, but Republicans say an executive order is not good enough.
"This is a partial repeal to do something the president said he is for with his executive order," Pitts said of his bill. "That is, to ban government abortions. We want to make it statutory."
Currently, the heath care reform law would allow insurers to offer abortion coverage in the new health exchange marketplaces, which will be set up in 2014, as long as they collect separate premium payments for that coverage and keep those funds separate from federal premium payments and credits.
The new Republican legislation put forth by Pitts and Smith, by contrast, would deny tax credits or subsidies for any private health insurance plans that include abortion coverage, even if the cost of the abortion coverage is paid for with private funds. Most insurance plans include abortion coverage, meaning that many women would have to pay more for their plans to keep them in tact.
"Individuals still have choice, only it would have to be done with their dollars, not with taxpayer money," Pitts said. Republicans "think there should be more competition in the public sector and the private sector, but we don't favor using taxpayer funds to fund the abortion industry. Abortion is not health care."
The results of last year's midterm elections seem to back up Pitts' claim that the "momentum" is on the side of abortion rights opponents. The anti-abortion rights group the Susan B. Anthony List told Politico that the House saw a net gain of 50 pro-life members. Meanwhile, the Senate is made up of 46 members who oppose abortion rights, 40 who support them and 14 wtih mixed records, according to the abortion rights group NARAL.
Even as the economic recovery remains the most pressing issue in Washington, social conservatives continue to highlight the abortion issue.
"Some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending," Republican Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), a possible 2012 presidential contender, said today at the "March for Life." "We must not remain silent when great moral battles are being waged."
Since Pitts' bill only modifies laws enacted through the Democrats' health care reforms, it serves as part of the Republican effort to dismantle the new laws piece by piece. Like the House's repeal of the entire reform package, it's unlikely that the abortion bills will pass through the Democrat-controlled Senate -- if they even come up for a vote.
Pitts maintains there's still a chance for the repeal bill to at least come up for debate in the Senate.
"There are 23 senators up for re-election in 2012, so they ignore this at their peril," he said.