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'Protect Life Act' Advances in the House Despite Questions over Terms


On Friday the House of Representatives Health Subcommittee approved the Protect Life Act (HR 358) that would put into law a ban on federal funding of abortion in last year's health care law. The bill is nearly a copy of a similar measure in 2009. However, the small differences from the original measure make the bill a heightened issue.

The Protect Life Act uses the Stupak-Pitts amendment that would have explicitly banned any connection between federal funds and abortion services. The amendment passed the House, but it was not included in the final version of the Affordable Care Act. The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Penn.), would codify the ban that is currently included as an executive order signed after the act was signed into law.

Addressing both abortion and the act, the bill was bound to be a flashpoint, but it became even more controversial because of small changes to the original Stupak-Pitts language that said federal funds could not be used for abortion except to save the life of the mother or "unless the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest." In the new bill, the language was changed to the mother's life and "if the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest."

The replacement of "rape" with "forcible rape" and limiting incest exclusion to minors raised the level of controversy surrounding the bill. Pitts removed the new language. The bill that passed the subcommittee used the language used for the Stupak-Pitts amendment and other federal funding restrictions.

The bill also explicitly includes language from the "Weldon Amendment" and applies it to the act. The amendment prohibits the federal government from discriminating against any doctor, hospital, or other health care provider who does not perform, refer, or provide for abortions.

This, too, is politically contentious, but it was made more so by a final provision that linked it to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). The act requires hospitals to examine and provide stabilizing treatment. The Protect Life Act would extend conscience provisions to the act.

For pro-choice groups, the possibility that a doctor could refuse to provide abortion services necessary to stabilize a woman's condition gave reason to rename the Protect Life Act the "Let Women Die" Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union's Laura Murphy said, "We may not all feel the same way about abortion, but we can agree that hospitals should not abandon a woman whose life may be at risk. Congress has no place telling hospitals that they are free to endanger the life of a woman in need of emergency care."

Pitts' spokesman Andrew Wimer told The Hill, "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."

Americans United for Life's Anna Franzonello told CT that the bill's provisions are reactions to recent efforts by the ACLU and other groups to question whether hospitals should provide abortions. She said the AUL believes health care providers have the right to provide care without doing abortions.

"The amendment should not be necessary by the letter of the law, but there are groups that are trying to misuse emergency treatment law to coerce health care providers into providing abortions," Franzonello said.

There are no claims that women may actually need an abortion to have their health stabilized (EMTALA also applies to what the act calls the "unborn child"). The new language may, for both sides of the debate, be more symbolic than anything.

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