WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders have made new restrictions on abortion one of their top priorities, pushing a divisive issue to the forefront of the congressional agenda.
Democrats say legislation imposing those restrictions would send women back to the days of back-alley abortionists, while Republicans say the main goal is to make a hodgepodge of existing temporary curbs into a single permanent one.
The story isn't as simple as either side makes it out to be.
While abortion would remain a legal medical procedure, the main GOP bill puts the squeeze on from a new angle. It would attach curbs on abortion to some longstanding federal tax breaks for medical care. That's a departure from the traditional practice of applying abortion restrictions to programs like Medicaid, which directly spends taxpayers' money for health care.
Some questions and answers about several aspects of the debate:
Q: Many employer-sponsored health care plans already cover abortion. Would that stop if this bill passes?
A: That answer isn't totally clear since a legal opinion from a neutral third party has yet to emerge.
The sponsor of the main GOP bill, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, says it is designed to "permanently end any U.S. government financial support for abortion, whether it be direct funding or by tax credits or any other subsidy."
Smith's office, however, says the bill would not affect the main tax break for employer-provided health insurance, which allows workers to get health care tax-free and lets employers deduct what they spend to provide coverage for their workers.
George Washington University law professor Sara Rosenbaum, an abortion rights supporter, says the impact is unclear. The wording of Smith's bill – its high priority indicated by its number, H.R. 3 – could empower the Internal Revenue Service to deny deductions taken by an employer for the cost of its employees' health insurance, she told the House Judiciary Committee.
If that's the case, employers could feel pressure to drop coverage for abortions.
Q: What tax breaks would be affected?
A: Both sides agree that individual taxpayers would no longer be able to take a medical expense income-tax deduction for the cost of an abortion. Likewise, women would not be able to use pre-tax dollars from a flexible spending account at work to pay for an abortion. The medical deduction and tax-exempt spending accounts have both been on the books for years.
"This would be the first time our laws would say that if you get a tax credit, you cannot get a legally available medical service," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., an abortion rights leader.
Some tax breaks in the new health care law would also be curtailed. Small businesses would not be able to use tax credits to buy insurance that covers abortion.
And if Republicans fail to repeal the health care law entirely, Smith's legislation would affect other tax credits making premiums more affordable for individuals and families starting in 2014. Recipients would not be allowed to use their tax credits to buy a health plan that covers abortion, even if they pay for the additional coverage with their own money. They would have to buy a separate policy.
Q: I heard this bill would change the definition of rape. Is that so?
A: Longstanding federal laws ban the use of taxpayer money for abortions except in cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother.
Smith sought to tweak those exceptions. His bill originally referred to "forcible" rape, but that wording got dropped following an outcry that narrowing the definition of rape could bar a federally financed abortion to some victims.
Another of Smith's changes seems to narrow the incest exception to cases involving minors, and it may also be dropped.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says Smith's proposed wording could be read to mean that an adult woman couldn't have a federally paid abortion if she became pregnant through incest.
The current federal funding prohibitions for abortions are known as the Hyde Amendment. They're attached to individual spending bills that Congress must renew each year, and they usually get approved without major controversy. Smith's bill would make the funding ban permanent and apply it across all government programs.
Q: What are the odds Smith's bill will become law?
A: The legislation is expected to pass the GOP-controlled House and pick up votes from Democrats opposed to abortion. But then it faces the Senate and President Barack Obama.
"We know this bill is probably not going to go anywhere in the Senate, and if it does, President Obama would not sign it," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., an abortion rights supporter.
That's not going to stop Republicans from trying. Other bills are also in the works. Expect a series of anti-abortion measures from the new House majority.