As lawmakers neared a deal on a coronavirus rescue package that would include paid sick leave and free virus testing, a few roadblocks emerged. Among them: Republican attempts to wedge anti-choice restrictions into the House's relief bill, turning—if momentarily—a public health crisis into an abortion debate.
The tensions reportedly revolved around the Hyde Amendment, a decades-old provision that blocks federal funds from going to abortion services, preventing millions of low-income Americans on Medicaid from accessing abortion care.
According to conservative media, some top Republicans believed a stipulation in the House bill requiring the government to reimburse private laboratories doing coronavirus testing could effectively overturn the Hyde Amendment by establishing a government funding stream not subject to the restrictions. In response, anti-choice lawmakers insisted on including language in the legislation that would reaffirm the principles of the amendment.
When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Thursday that negotiations over the coronavirus response bill would go into next week, he accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of turning the legislation into an “ideological wish list.”
“Instead of focusing on immediate relief to affected individuals, families and businesses, the House Democrats chose to wander into various areas of policy that are barely related if at all to the issue before us,” McConnell said.
Yet it is often Republicans who use unrelated legislation as a vehicle for their anti-abortion agenda. And it’s not the first time they’ve used legislation tied to public health emergencies to do it: Amid the spread of the Zika virus in 2016, anti-choice lawmakers added a caveat blocking Planned Parenthood health care providers from accessing any of the designated emergency funds.
Conservative lawmakers also tried to wedged a sneaky anti-abortion provision into Trump’s 2017 tax plan, giving expectant parents the option of creating a college savings account before their child is even born. The measure included fetal personhood language, referring to fetuses as “unborn children,” and defining “unborn child” as any “child in utero.”
And abortion restrictions have been a sticking point in spending bills, which both parties use to push for policies they’re having trouble advancing by other means. In 2018, the White House pushed Republicans in Congress to slip measures that threatened to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood into a bill to prevent the third government shutdown of the year—even though government dollars never went to funding abortion services at the clinics because of the Hyde Amendment. A little less than a year later, Democrats used their new House majority to pass a spending bill that challenged the one of the Trump administration’s most wide-reaching abortion restrictions: the global gag rule, a law that bans U.S. funding from going to international organizations that provide abortion services or even discuss abortion as a form of reproductive health care. (This version of the spending bill did not make it past Senate Republicans.)
But while government shutdowns can, at a point, become national emergencies, none so far has compared to the scale of the current global coronavirus pandemic, which could leave the U.S. worse off than countries like Italy—which put a quarter of its population on emergency quarantine—the longer it delays decisive action.
The unemployment benefits and free testing that are at the core of the coronavirus rescue package mean preventing further spread of the virus, and making sure that low-wage workers can afford to pay for food, rent, and other necessities if they get sick, or if their workplaces shutter to mitigate harm, or as a result of government mandates.
Neither of those things have to do with abortion—they’re urgent health matters that require the fastest possible response from elected officials.
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