By Evan McMorris-Santoro
The controversy over "forcible rape" may be over, but now there's a new Republican-sponsored abortion bill in the House that pro-choice folks say may be worse: this time around, the new language would allow hospitals to let a pregnant woman die rather than perform the abortion that would save her life.
The bill, known currently as H.R. 358 or the "Protect Life Act," would amend the 2010 health care reform law that would modify the way Obamacare deals with abortion coverage. Much of its language is modeled on the so-called Stupak Amendment, an anti-abortion provision pro-life Democrats attempted to insert into the reform law during the health care debate last year. But critics say a new language inserted into the bill just this week would go far beyond Stupak, allowing hospitals that receive federal funds but are opposed to abortions to turn away women in need of emergency pregnancy termination to save their lives.
The sponsor of H.R. 358, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) is a vocal member of the House's anti-abortion wing. A member of the bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus and a co-sponsor of H.R 3 -- the bill that added "forcible rape" to the lexicon this week -- Pitts is no stranger to the abortion debate. But pro-choice advocates say his new law goes farther than any other bill has in encroaching on the rights of women to obtain an abortion when their health is at stake. They say the bill is giant leap away from accepted law, and one they haven't heard many in the pro-life community openly discuss before.
Pitts' response to the complaints from pro-choice groups? Nothing to see here.
"Since the 1970s, existing law affirmed the right to refuse involvement in abortion in all circumstances," a spokesperson for Pitts told TPM.
"The Protect Life Act simply extends these provisions to the new law by inserting a provision that mirrors Hyde-Weldon," the spokesperson added, referring to current federal law banning spending on abortion and allowing anti-abortion doctors to refrain from performing them while still receiving federal funds. "In other words, this bill is only preserving the same rights that medical professionals have had for decades."
A bit of backstory: currently, all hospitals in America that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are bound by a 1986 law known as EMTALA to provide emergency care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay or other factors. Hospitals do not have to provide free care to everyone that arrives at their doorstep under EMTALA -- but they do have to stabilize them and provide them with emergency care without factoring in their ability to pay for it or not. If a hospital can't provide the care a patient needs, it is required to transfer that patient to a hospital that can, and the receiving hospital is required to accept that patient.
In the case of an anti-abortion hospital with a patient requiring an emergency abortion, ETMALA would require that hospital to perform it or transfer the patient to someone who can. (The nature of how that procedure works exactly is up in the air, with the ACLU calling on the federal government to state clearly that unwillingness to perform an abortion doesn't qualify as inability under EMTALA. That argument is ongoing, and the government has yet to weigh in.)
Pitts' new bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement under EMTALA, meaning that medical providers who aren't willing to terminate pregnancies wouldn't have to -- nor would they have to facilitate a transfer.
The hospital could literally do nothing at all, pro-choice critics of Pitts' bill say.
"This is really out there," Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America told TPM. "I haven't seen this before."
Crane said she's been a pro-choice advocate "for a long time," yet she's never seen anti-abortion bill as brazenly attacking the health of the mother exemption as Pitts' bill has. NARAL has fired up its lobbying machinery and intends to make the emergency abortion language a key part of its fight against the Pitts bill when it goes before subcommittee in the House next week.
Pitts' office says they're unmoved by NARAL's concerns. They say the goal of their bill is to codify existing legal protections for medical providers who do not want to perform abortions, such as the Weldon Amendment.
"NARAL and other abortion rights groups have vigorously opposed any conscience protection legislation, it is no surprise that they would attack the Protect Life Act with the same old talking points," a Pitts spokesperson said.
To be sure, advocates from the anti-abortion medical community are rallying around the bill. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association -- which is not always in lockstep with the pro-life community when it comes to the health care reform law -- penned a letter to Pitts last week praising the bill for its "additions to the conscience protections which hospitals and health care providers already have."
But pro-choice advocates say that the new provisions in the Pitts effectively eliminate the right of critically ill women to obtain an abortion to save their lives. That goes beyond the commonly accepted understanding of "conscience protections" for pro-life health providers.
"I think a majority of Americans would agree with us that saving a woman's life should be every hospital's first priority," Alexa Kolbi-Molina, an attorney with the ACLU's reproductive freedom division said. "We all know a woman who has faced a complication in her pregnancy ... we would hope that when that woman goes to a hospital she would be protected and get the care that she needs."
"I think a majority of Americans would believe that a hospital should not be imposing their religious beliefs when providing care, especially life-saving care," she added.
ETA: MoveOn has a petition going here. Also, if you can, please contact your representatives. Again, the chances of this passing the Senate or getting past Obama are minimal, but there's always the chance.