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Abortion debate heats up on Capitol Hill

By Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 6:39 PM

A renewed - and heated - debate about abortion is underway one month into a congressional session that largely has devoted its energy to tackling economic issues.

At the core of the discussion this week are two House Republican proposals that would expand restrictions on federal abortion funding.

One, H.R. 3 - also known as the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" - would eliminate tax breaks for abortions and permanently prohibit taxpayer funding for abortions in all federal programs by codifying the Hyde Amendment, which typically is renewed annually. It also would reinstate a ban on abortion funding in the District, a move that some have contended would infringe on the city's right to self-government. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

The other, H.R. 358 - known as the "Protect Life Act" - would prohibit federal funding for abortions under the new national health-care law and also would prevent funding from being withheld from institutions that are opposed to providing abortions. It is sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.).

Abortion-rights advocates contend that the proposals would allow hospitals to refuse to provide abortions in cases where the woman's life is threatened. They also argue that the bills go too far in prohibiting women from using their own money to obtain insurance that covers a range of reproductive care.

In addition, the Smith bill sparked controversy through its use of the term "forcible rape," which women's rights groups charged was an attempt to change the definition of rape. The term was dropped from the bill last week.

The heated emotions surrounding the abortion debate were on display Tuesday as lawmakers sparred ahead of - and during - a hearing on the bill by the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee.

As the subcommittee hearing began, about a dozen activists from the organization DC Vote staged a silent protest against the reinstatement of the ban on D.C. abortion funding. Wearing red bandanas over their mouths, the protesters stood among the 70 or so people in the packed committee room for several minutes until they were silently escorted from the room by Capitol Police officers.

Testifying at Tuesday's subcommittee hearing were Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Sara Rosenbaum, professor of health law and policy and chairman of the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services; and Family Research Council senior fellow Cathy Ruse.

Kellie Fiedorek, a staff attorney for the anti-abortion-rights organization Americans United for Life, was among those attending Tuesday's hearing. She said that she believes the current debate over abortion funding is in tune with the debate over jobs and the economy.

"I think it's completely in line with the desire to focus on jobs, because we are in a financial crisis, so this ensures that federal taxpayer funds are going to things that are important to the American people and not to something like abortion," Fiedorek said.

Just before the hearing, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and representatives from several abortion-rights groups held a news conference at which they denounced the Smith bill as an "unacceptable attack on a woman's right to choose and a distraction from the economic relief that Americans expect from Congress."

About a dozen activists from MoveOn.org attended the event and presented a petition that they said contains more than 150,000 signatures from Americans opposed to the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act."

At a separate news conference before the hearing, Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Frank R. Lautenberg (N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and other Senate Democrats took aim at the GOP proposals as "extreme" and charged that they are a distraction from Congress's top priority of kick-starting the economy. Lautenberg said the Smith bill "sounds like a Third World country that's requiring women to wear head shawls, cover their faces, even if they don't want to do it."

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health is slated to hold a hearing on the "Protect Life Act."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters Tuesday that, so far, neither measure has been scheduled for a vote in the House, but that both "are obviously very important in terms of the priorities we set out initially in our Pledge to America.

"These are bills which have to do with the expenditure of government funds, taxpayer dollars for abortion, something that most Americans feel we should do without," Cantor said.

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