Should the IRS decide whether a woman has been raped?

Rep. Christopher Smith ( R-N.J.) sponsor of the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)
Rep. Christopher Smith ( R-N.J.) sponsor of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.” (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)

The IRS is good at a lot of things — sending out tax refunds, giving tax credits for child-care expenses and deductions for charitable contributions, and helping taxpayers file their income tax returns for free.

But one thing the IRS probably isn’t very good at is deciding whether or not a woman has been raped.

That’s why some provisions of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” don’t make a whole lot of sense. H.R. 7, which is sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), would change the tax code so that individuals may only deduct medical expenses related to abortion in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of life.

That provision seems pretty innocuous until you stop and ask: Who’s supposed to decide when a medical expense is related to a pregnancy caused by rape or incest?

Supporters of H.R. 7 — the bill has 164 co-sponsors, including 11 women and four Democrats — would give that authority to the Internal Revenue Service. Yes, that’s right. The same organization that has been vilified for targeting certain organizations with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names to help determine whether they qualify for tax-exempt status will be able to target individuals to make sure that they’re not improperly claiming deductions for an abortion that wasn’t due to rape, incest or to save the mother’s life.

Should the Internal Revenue Service have the authority to ask a woman to prove that she’s been raped?

Speaking at Wednesday’s annual March for Life in Washington, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced that “next week, the House will vote once and for all to end taxpayer funding for abortions.” The House Judiciary Committee under Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) voted 22-12 last week to send H.R. 7 to the full Congress. However, with firm opposition from President Obama and Senate Democrats, it’s not likely to go anywhere.

The House passed an earlier version by a 251-175 vote in 2011. It’s the latest version of the act that amends the tax code and establishes the tax man’s role in determining the validity of a woman’s medical expense deduction.

During a 2011 House Ways and Means committee hearing on an earlier version of the bill, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) feared that “it may require that the IRS snoop into what American women are doing with their own money.” By contrast, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee that held a hearing on H.R. 7 on January 9, seems to believe that the incidence of pregnancy after rape is so low that it’s not worth taking into special consideration.

Given that many people don’t want the IRS prying into their personal lives, it seems hard to believe that they would be comfortable sending an IRS auditor into a woman’s bedroom and asking her such intensely personal questions. This discomfort is likely to rise in cases in which a woman who has been a victim of rape may be under emotional distress not just because of the rape but also from the abortion.

Many Republican co-sponsors of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion bill, which would increase the IRS’s role in an individual’s health matters, have simultaneously said that the IRS shouldn’t have access to taxpayers’ health-care information. Last August, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) co-sponsored H.R. 2009, the Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act, which passed the House last summer. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) told Newsmax that the IRS has “no business accessing or monitoring Americans’ personal health information.” Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) has warned against granting the IRS access to people’s health-care information, while Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) has said that “we cannot allow the IRS to have any say over our health and wellbeing.”

It’s here where many abortion opponents and foes of the IRS run into a conundrum.  While they don’t want to give the IRS any money to implement the Affordable Care Act, they do want the IRS involved in enforcing the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.

Regardless of how its supporters view the IRS, implementing the tax provisions of H.R. 7 requires the IRS to get involved with the health-care system. If the IRS suspects that a taxpayer has made an improper claim, then it may audit the taxpayer’s income tax return and ask the taxpayer to prove that the expenses relate to a legally permissible deduction. As Thomas A. Barthold, chief of staff of Congress’s nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, explained in 2011, the taxpayer generally has the “burden of proof” in documenting a claim. In other words, if the IRS asks, the taxpayer must answer.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) introduced the Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act. The bill was introduced by Rep. Tim Price (R-Ga.).

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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