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Why the GOP is still talking about abortion

Republicans have taken one look at Democrats’ “war on women” rhetoric – and run straight toward it.
Rep. Trent Franks speaks at a news conference on the Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, Oct. 9, 2013.
Rep. Trent Franks speaks at a news conference on the Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, Oct. 9, 2013. 

WASHINGTON -- Republicans have taken one look at Democrats’ “war on women” rhetoric – and run straight toward it.

“I don’t think there’s any greater war on women anywhere in the world than abortion on demand,” Rep. Trent Franks told msnbc this morning, shortly after a subcommittee hearing on HR7, the so-called No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The bill would ban federal subsidies and tax benefits to private insurance plans if they cover abortion, broadening the scope of the Hyde Amendment, which already largely prohibits taxpayer funding for abortion.

As for the so-called GOP rebrand, Franks, who has often championed such legislation, said, “There are very few issues that are more important to the Republican [party] foundation than protecting innocent human life.” He added, “If somehow now we should let that central pillar of who we are as a party crumble, we would simply go the way of the Whigs.”

Franks isn’t alone. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus delayed the start of the party’s winter meeting so members could attend the annual March on Life on the Mall. “This is a core principle of our party,” he told the Washington Times.

All of the sensitivity trainings in the world can’t change that core principle, apparently, in part because opposition to abortion, and even contraception, remains a motivating issue for the Republican base. Never mind that in the most recent cycle, Virginia voters told pollsters that Republican policies on abortion led them to pick a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, for governor. Or that the contraceptive policy Republicans are hoping the Supreme Court strikes down was part of the winning formula for Democrats in 2012. Though Priebus has to worry about competitive states like Virginia, most House Republicans don’t.

And the attack on federal subsidies for health insurance plans – which, left to their own market-based devices, usually cover abortion – also conveniently doubles as an attack on the Affordable Care Act, in the same way that attacking the provisions that require coverage for contraception as infringement of religious freedom does. (Paul Ryan is still pushing that conscience clause, though he may not have to, once the Supreme Court decides the Hobby Lobby case by June.)

During the hearing today, Franks sought assurance from witness and George Mason law professor Helen Alvare – who has been called “birth control’s worst enemy” – that women actually don’t want insurance coverage for abortion. (Nearly one in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime.) She claimed poor women were less likely to support abortion or coverage for it, although she didn’t say they are also more likely to have one.

About half of the states have passed some version of what was being proposed – banning abortion coverage on the state exchanges, or banning it for all private insurance and suggesting women buy elusive abortion riders if they wanted coverage. (After Michigan’s version, this has become popularly known as  “rape insurance.”) As Dr. Susan Wood, a health policy professor at George Washington University put it in her testimony opposing the bill, even a rape exception would mean the insurer or an IRS audit potentially demanding proof of an actual assault. 

It also means meddling with the private insurance market, which Republicans have catalogued as one of the sins of the Affordable Care Act. “Historically plans have covered abortion under medical health insurance,” Wood said, “and now it will tip to the norm being non-coverage.” (For his part, the representative for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described this as insurance companies conceding that “live babies are more expensive than dead ones…Now we’re going to put federal funds to encourage that bias.”) In the end, thanks to the new raft of state bans, the Affordable Care Act is likely resulting in a net diminution of abortion coverage.

Alvare did mention a couple of policies she would consider more pro-woman than the right to choose and access an abortion, among them paid family leave. In fact, Democrats just introduced such legislation in both chambers. The Republican silence was deafening.