WASHINGTON — House Republicans are trying to use the tax code to curb abortions by limiting tax breaks for insurance policies that cover the procedure.
The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to vote on a bill Thursday that would prevent taxpayers from deducting the cost of an abortion from their taxable income. It would also prevent small businesses and taxpayers from using tax credits in the new health care law to provide or pay for insurance policies that cover the procedure.
If women pay for an abortion using tax-free income that had been set aside in a heath savings account, the money would have to be reported as taxable income. There would be exceptions for cases of rape or incest, or if a physician certifies that a woman's life would be in danger if she doesn't terminate her pregnancy.
Federal law already prohibits federal funding for abortion, with the same exceptions listed in the bill. The new health care law, which was nearly derailed by the highly charged issue, creates state marketplaces for insurance called exchanges. The law allows plans in the exchanges to cover abortions, as long as they collect a separate premium from policy holders and that money is kept apart from federal subsidies.
Republicans were united in opposing the new health care law. Now, with their efforts to repeal it stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate, they are attacking it piece-by-piece. House GOP leaders support the effort to limit tax breaks that help fund abortions, but the bill faces strong opposition in the Senate.
Supporters say the bill is necessary because current law doesn't go far enough in ensuring that no tax money is used to subsidize abortions.
"We're just trying to have a very clear line of demarcation on where our taxpayer funds may be used for abortion," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. "It's really using the tax code and taxpayer dollars to assist with the procurement of abortion, and we're going to make sure that doesn't happen."
Opponents say the bill would make it difficult, if not impossible, for many women to obtain medical coverage that covers abortions — even if they pay for it with their own money.
"This is overkill plus, and the purpose of it escapes me," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a member of the committee. "We're debating an issue that is so inconsequential to the lives of most Americans. I will not support this. I'm annoyed that we're even taking time on the Ways and Means Committee to do something that's obviously very ideological and has nothing to do with the health care bill, and nothing really to do with taxes or getting people back to work."
By law, taxpayers can deduct medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income, a threshold that increases to 10 percent in 2013. They can also set side tax-free money in health savings accounts, and spend it on approved medical expenses. The Internal Revenue Service currently lists the cost of an abortion as an approved medical expense.
Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said she is concerned the bill would cause insurance companies in state exchanges to drop abortion coverage, making it unavailable, even for women who pay their own premiums. She is also concerned the bill would put the IRS in the awkward position of determining whether women who get abortions were sexually assaulted, so it can decide whether the procedure is tax-deductible.
"It would be an alarming new responsibility for the IRS," Crane said.