WASHINGTON -- After an emotional floor debate, the House of Representatives on Thursday passed the so-called Protect Life Act, which prohibits women from buying health insurance plans that cover abortion under the Affordable Care Act and makes it legal for hospitals to deny abortions to pregnant women with life-threatening conditions.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a proponent of the bill, told voters last week that its purpose is "to ensure that no taxpayer dollars flow to health care plans that cover abortion and no health care worker has to participate in abortions against their will."
In fact, the Affordable Care Act already keeps public dollars separate from the private insurance payments that cover abortion. A federal judge ruled in August that the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List had to stop making the claim on its website that "Obamacare" subsidizes abortions because the assertion is false.
"The express language of the [Affordable Care Act] does not provide for taxpayer-funded abortion," the opinion states. "That is a fact, and it is clear on its face."
H.R. 358, introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), goes beyond the issue of taxpayer dollars to place actual limits on the way a woman spends her own money. The bill would prevent a woman from buying a private insurance plan that includes abortion coverage through a state health care exchange, even though most insurance plans currently cover abortion.
An even more controversial aspect of the bill would allow hospitals that are morally opposed to abortion, such as Catholic institutions, to do nothing for a woman who requires an emergency abortion procedure to save her life. Current law requires that hospitals give patients in life-threatening situations whatever care they need, regardless of the patient's financial situation, but the Protect Life Act would make a hospital's obligation to provide care in medical emergencies secondary to its refusal to provide abortions.
"Congress has passed refusal laws before, but it's never blatantly tried to override emergency care protections," said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've heard proponents of this bill say that women don't need emergency abortion care, but that is really just willful blindness to the facts."
According to the American Journal of Public Health, Catholic hospitals already have a years-long history of ignoring the emergency care law to avoid performing abortions. In late 2009, an Arizona bishop excommunicated a nun who authorized an abortion procedure for a woman who otherwise might have died of pulmonary hypertension at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said she personally faced a situation in which an abortion was medically necessary.
"I was pregnant, I was miscarrying, I was bleeding," she said on the House floor Thursday. "If I had to go from one hospital to the next trying to find one emergency room that would take me in, who knows if I would even be here today. What my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are trying to do is misogynist."
Despite a strong showing in the House, the bill is unlikely to pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and the White House said on Wednesday that President Barack Obama will veto the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.
"The Administration strongly opposes H.R. 358 because ... the legislation intrudes on women's reproductive freedom and access to health care and unnecessarily restricts the private insurance choices that women and their families have today," the White House said in a statement.
WATCH Rep. Speier speak in opposition to the Protect Life Act: