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Are Conservatives Trying to End Insurance Coverage for Abortion?

Remember the nasty fight over federal funding of abortion that nearly derailed the health care package? It's not over.

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Perhaps the easiest way to answer questions about a bill's intent and impact is to go to the men who wrote it. But that's not as easy as it sounds. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) was an original co-sponsor of the bill with Smith. But Lipinski's office said he wouldn't be available to answer questions about it -- and didn't respond to followup queries. Smith's office was even less responsive -- multiple calls and emails over a period of several weeks produced no one who could comment on the bill. Are abortion rights supporters right that the bill would affect private, employer-provided health insurance? Or are they blowing things out of proportion to fire up their base? I can't get an answer.

This is no throw-away political proposal. The triple-digit, bipartisan list of co-sponsors and the support of the future Speaker give it momentum. So why is such a basic issue about the impact of the bill still in dispute? Some abortion rights advocates have suggested that confusion over what the bill would or wouldn't do could be the result of poorly drafted language. Laurie Rubiner, the vice president for public policy and advocacy at Planned Parenthood, agrees with the idea that the bill would affect private insurance. But she also thinks the language is extremely unclear. "It's very shoddily drafted language," Rubiner says. "You could probably read it either way" -- that is, she stands by her analysis, but she understands how other people could read the same provisions differently.

Cohen says it's clear Smith at least intended for the bill to affect private insurance. "There's no other explanation for why those measures are there," she says. "Maybe the way they wrote it as a technical matter was flawed, but presumably when the bill is reintroduced those flaws will be corrected." When Smith reintroduces the bill in the new Congress, the Republicans will have the power to put it on the agenda and force a vote. As the bill moves closer to a vote, Smith has "an obligation to explain what it would do as a matter of law," Cohen says.

The bill also includes a version of the Stupak amendment, the anti-abortion provision pushed by outgoing Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) during the health care debate. Like Stupak, Smith's bill would require people receiving subsidies for insurance under the new health care reform law to purchase separate "abortion insurance." It would also limit the traditional rape and incest exceptions to "forcible" rape and incest "with a minor."

While the bill's tax and insurance implications are a subject of much debate, what's clear is that it would include the codification of the Hyde amendment, which Mother Jonesexplained last week. Here's the short version: while most people think of the Hyde Amendment as one bill, in practice it is a series of negotiated provisions in a series of different spending bills. It works a little bit differently in each of them. If Smith's bill passes, Congress could avoid its annual battles over Hyde and its cousins, which have prohibited abortion spending in places like federal prisons, foreign aid, military bases overseas, and the District of Columbia. That would help opponents of abortion rights, who have won the Hyde battle every year since 1976 but sometimes have to compromise on the related provisions.

Ted Miller, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, says he believes that once Smith reintroduces his bill in the new Congress, Republicans will be able to pass it out of the House of Representatives "without blinking an eye." NARAL has "no doubt" that Republicans will do it, Miller says. "They're making this a cornerstone." Before they start building on top of that "cornerstone," though, the bill's supporters should probably explain how, exactly, it would affect the tax code.

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