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The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has made restricting abortion one of its top priorities. That fight is decades old. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, this year it's reaching into new territory: the tax code.

JULIE ROVNER: The House is formally starting work this week on two bills aimed at making sure no federal funds are used to pay for abortion. Arizona Republican Trent Franks chaired the House hearing on the first of the bills yesterday.

Congressman TRENT FRANKS (Republican, Arizona): This legislation is really about whether the role of America's government is to continue to fund a practice that takes the lives of over one million little Americans every year.

ROVNER: Now, you might think that federal law already bans the use of taxpayer funds for abortion, and you'd be correct. The so-called Hyde amendment bars federal abortion funding except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the woman. It's passed Congress in some form every year since 1976, as part of several different spending bills. But Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the subcommittee, yesterday, that the Hyde language doesn't do quite enough.

Mr. RICHARD DOERFLINGER (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Gaps or loopholes have been discovered in this patchwork of provisions over the years, highlighting the need for permanent and consistent policies across the federal government.

ROVNER: So now that Republicans are back in charge of the House, they made writing the Hyde language into permanent law one of their top priorities. Except the bill they've introduced does more than just that. It would also limit the ability of individuals and some businesses to use tax credits or deductions for private health insurance policies that include coverage of abortion, which most policies do. Cathy Ruse, a lawyer with the Family Research Council, said the change is justified to protect taxpayers who oppose abortion.

Ms. CATHY RUSE (Lawyer, Family Research Council): As a general proposition, tax reduction is a form of government subsidy.

ROVNER: She means things like being able to deduct insurance premiums from your income taxes. But abortion-rights backers, like Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, say that by defining anything in the tax code as federal funding, Congress is stepping onto a very slippery slope.

Ms. CECILE RICHARDS (President, Planned Parenthood): There's all types of ways in which businesses, small business owners, others, benefit from the tax code - and that's never been considered, in the case of abortion care or other things, federal funding.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, Sara Rosenbaum, a law professor at George Washington University, told the subcommittee that the tax changes could create all sorts of operational problems. For example, she said, the IRS would have to make technical decisions about what types of abortions can and can't be covered so it can decide what kind of insurance is eligible for tax deductions and credits.

Professor SARA ROSENBAUM (Law, George Washington University): We're going to need the Internal Revenue Service to define a rape; potentially a forcible rape; incest; potentially incest involving minors as opposed to incest not involving minors; physical conditions endangering life, and physical conditions that don't endanger life.

ROVNER: She's referring to the fact that the bill as written would change the definition of rape from what's currently in the Hyde language. Doerflinger, of the Catholic conference, told the subcommittee there was a logical reason sponsors wanted to change the definition of rape to, quote, "forcible rape."

Mr. DOERFLINGER: The recent debate about forcible rape was simply an effort on the part of the sponsors to prevent the opening of a very broad loophole for federally funded abortions for any teenager.

ROVNER: In other words, no exceptions for statutory rape, when a minor has sex with an adult. Republicans, however, said they would take out the word forcible after a huge outcry, including a devastating satire from the comedians at "The Daily Show."

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Ms. KRISTEN SCHAAL (Comedian): You'd be surprised how many drugged, underaged, or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system. Sorry ladies, the free abortion ride is over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: Today another House committee takes up the second bill, which sponsors say would close loopholes that leave the potential for federal abortion funding in last year's health overhaul law.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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