RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the House, the new Republican majority is pressing ahead with its agenda. The House voted to repeal the health overhaul law on Wednesday, and yesterday turned to another controversial issue: Abortion.
As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, Republican leaders are hoping legislation to further restrict abortion can also help weaken support for the health overhaul bill.
JULIE ROVNER: Abortion rights supporters say the new Republican majority is overplaying its hand by making restricting abortion a priority. Nancy Keenan is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Ms. NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro-Choice America): The 2010 elections were about jobs and the economy and it was not an endorsement of an anti-choice agenda.
ROVNER: But you wouldn't know that from listening to House Speaker John Boehner.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): A ban on taxpayer funding of abortions is the will of the people and ought to be the will of the land.
ROVNER: Boehner appeared at a news conference yesterday with Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, the long-time chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus. Smith has introduced legislation that would write into permanent law existing abortion restrictions; restrictions that currently have to be renewed by Congress every year.
Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey; Chairman, Pro-Life Caucus): Our new bill 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.
ROVNER: This isn't the first time Smith has tried to make permanent various annual abortion restrictions, but this year is different. His bill has been officially designated H.R. 3, signaling it's a top priority for the leadership.
Smith's bill isn't the only major piece of abortion legislation that's likely to get an early vote in the House though. Republican Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, another longtime abortion opponent, now chairs the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has a bill he says would close loopholes in the health law that allows abortion funding.
Representative JOE PITTS (Republican, Pennsylvania): They've opened the proverbial floodgates for federal money to pour into abortion services and with it they have incentivized an extremely controversial practice. This is simply not acceptable.
ROVNER: But whether the health law actually does allow federal abortion funding is still the subject of a heated debate. While abortion opponents say it does, abortion-rights groups say it does not. And not only that, supporters of abortion rights say it actually puts new restrictions on the procedure. That's because it requires women to buy separate insurance policies if they want abortion coverage provided by their insurance plan.
Donna Crane is NARAL's policy director.
Ms. DONNA CRANE (Policy Director, NARAL): Eighty-seven percent of plans sold in this country today do include abortion coverage as a standard benefit. It's basically sort of the industry standard.
ROVNER: Other surveys have found abortion coverage less pervasive than that, but still widespread.
But it's not just abortion-rights groups that say the law didn't expand abortion access. Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and prominent anti-abortion voice, says what many Republicans are saying about the law and abortion is simply not so.
Professor TIMOTHY JOST (Law, Washington and Lee University): Both the federal court in Virginia and the Ohio Elections Commission determined that the claim that the Affordable Care Act funds abortion is false. The question is not whether we're going to strip abortion funding from health care reform. The question is how much further Congress is willing to go to remove tax subsidies for abortion coverage that is currently available.
ROVNER: Congressman Smith's Bill would do more than just write into law existing abortion restrictions. It would also eliminate tax benefits for insurance policies that cover abortion - even abortions in most cases of medical necessity.
NARAL's Donna Crane says the effect could be far reaching.
Ms. CRANE: If you are a health insurance plan and you are selling your product and all of a sudden it becomes that much more expensive, because there are tax penalties imposed on it, you're probably going to change the nature of your product. And in this case, we're quite certain that Chris Smith intends for health insurance plans to drop their abortion coverage.
ROVNER: Unlike the bill to repeal the entire health law, which is given basically no chance of passing the Senate, anti-abortion legislation is seen as having a good chance. That's because many Democrats in that chamber oppose abortion rights too.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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