The Abortion Tax
The Republican plan to prevent your abortion by holding your tax money hostage.
The Republican platform ridicules Democrats for failing to recognize the difference between public and private money. It complains that Congress "treats well-deserved tax cuts as a kind of spending, so that letting Americans keep more of their earnings is considered the same as more spending on pork projects." Democrats forget that "eliminating … tax reductions" is just another way "to raise taxes," says the GOP:
Today's Democratic Party views the tax code as a tool for social engineering. They use it to control our behavior, steer our choices, and change the way we live our lives. The Republican Party will put a stop to both social engineering and corporate handouts by simplifying tax policy, eliminating special deals, and putting those saved dollars back into the taxpayers' pockets.
Two years after writing that platform, Republicans have captured the House of Representatives. And what's their first item of business? Using the tax code as a tool for social engineering. This week, the House began hearings on two abortion bills: the Protect Life Act and the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Both bills would outlaw the use of federal money for abortions. And to give the government more leverage, they would redefine tax credits as federal money.
In the hearings, held Tuesday by the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Health, Republican lawmakers and pro-lifers suggested that federal funding of abortion should be prohibited in the name of individual freedom and government neutrality. It's "not 'pro-choice' to force others to fund a procedure to which they have fundamental objections," Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the Subcommittee on the Constitution. The subcommittee chairman, Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, concurred: "This legislation is really about whether the role of America's government is to continue to fund [abortion] despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans—even some of those who consider themselves pro-choice—strongly object to their taxpayer dollars paying for abortion."
That argument has been made for decades on behalf of the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the purchase of abortions using federal money. But the health care law enacted last year complicates this framework. It sets up regulated markets in which you can buy health insurance. If you have trouble paying the premiums, the government might give you a tax credit—reducing what you fork over to the IRS—so you can afford the insurance. And to insulate the government from subsidizing abortions, you'll have to pay a separately administered surcharge if you want coverage of that procedure.
House Republicans and pro-lifers don't think the surcharge is sufficient insulation. They want to prevent any money that touches the government's hands from going to any insurer that pays claims for abortions. For this reason, the No Taxpayer Funding bill includes a "Prohibition on Tax Benefits Relating to Abortion." Under this provision, "no credit shall be allowed under the internal revenue laws … with respect to amounts paid or incurred for a health benefits plan (including premium assistance) that includes coverage of abortion." So if the insurance you bought under the health care law covers abortion, the tax credit you were going to get for buying the insurance is nullified. That money, which you had earned before the IRS took it, will not be returned to you. It doesn't matter whether you're paying 90 percent of your premiums out of already-taxed income. Any tax credit, even a penny, gives the government veto power over your abortion coverage.
And if you've already received the tax credit, the IRS will force you to send it back. In this and other ways, health policy scholar Sara Rosenbaum testified, the No Taxpayer Funding bill "dramatically expands the Hyde Amendment's long-standing concept of what constitutes public funding." It would "reach beyond the furthest limits of Hyde Amendment and directly into the Internal Revenue Code." Among other things, Rosenbaum noted, the bill would require the IRS to "police the contents" of everyone's insurance coverage and "recoup" tax reductions from them.
The Republicans on the two subcommittees and their handpicked pro-life witnesses had no problem crossing this line. They dismissed the distinction between tax credits and subsidies. "The reduction of taxation is a form of government subsidy," Cathy Ruse of the Family Research Council testified. Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee agreed:
The claim … that a federal agency can send checks to abortionists to pay for abortions, but without employing public funds, amounts to a political hoax. The federal government collects monies through various mechanisms, but once collected, they become public funds—federal funds.
In other words, once the government takes your money, it belongs to society. The government might return it to you, but only as a gift. If you ask for some of your own money back, in order to buy health insurance under a law that offers tax credits for that purpose, the government can refuse, on the grounds that you're "forcing" other taxpayers to "fund" abortions.
What about that stuff in the Republican platform about social engineering? Never mind. When it comes to abortion, the GOP and its pro-life allies regard the tax code, like federal appropriations, as a legitimate tool for steering our choices. "Both tax-preferred status and appropriations have been recognized in the courts as being allowed for a public good," Chairman Franks said Tuesday. "Abortion is not a public good. … Governments should still have the right to shape the tax code in favor of a public good or against something that they consider … is not a public good."
Doerflinger testified that "the purpose of a federal funding ban is to use the government's funding power to encourage childbirth over abortion." He quoted the Supreme Court: "By subsidizing the medical expenses of indigent women who carry their pregnancies to term while not subsidizing the comparable expenses of women who undergo abortions … Congress has established incentives that make childbirth a more attractive alternative than abortion. …" The No Taxpayer Funding bill would simply extend this incentive strategy, through the tax code, from the poor to the middle class. In this way, Doerflinger explained, it would apply "to all branches of the federal government the principle that government can encourage childbirth over abortion through its funding power."
That's what the new abortion bills are about: turning your tax money into "funding power" that the government can use to shape your behavior. When he announced the No Taxpayer Funding bill, House Speaker John Boehner promised that it would assure people "their tax dollars are never used to fund abortions." He was right. He just didn't tell them that the abortions, like the tax dollars, were their own.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of John Boehner by Alex Wong/Getty Images.