WASHINGTON — A hard-fought battle over abortion raged just beneath the surface of the Senate’s $2 trillion coronavirus economic rescue plan. And it looks like Republicans won.
Provisions tucked into the fine print of the 880-page bill approved by the Senate Thursday take direct aim at Planned Parenthood, the reproductive healthcare provider and eternal GOP target over its role providing abortions. Those details make it harder for the group to shelter from the economic storm unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already profoundly disrupted the American healthcare system.
The bill makes it much more difficult, if not outright impossible, for Planned Parenthood to access new multi-billion dollar funds aimed at stabilizing the U.S. economy in the midst of the historic downturn, according to experts who spoke with VICE News.
The bill is complex and lengthy, and advocates on both sides of the abortion debate said at first they weren’t entirely sure what was hiding in its pages.
Democrats succeeded in striking one controversial passage from the bill that had seemed tailor-made to keep Planned Parenthood from accessing federally-backed loans. But a team of Republicans led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gave the Trump administration other options for blocking federal funding, according to experts who read the bill as well as Planned Parenthood itself.
Trump’s Small Business Administration will have broad latitude to deny Planned Parenthood access to emergency rescue loans created by the new stimulus package and available to other nonprofits. The bill also includes language that blocks state and local governments from using coronavirus rescue funds from being allocated to cover abortion services.
“Anti-choice activists in Congress and the White House used a pandemic response to target sexual and reproductive health care and its providers,” said Clare Coleman, President and CEO of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association. “It is wholly disappointing that Congress failed to support the entirety of the nation’s public health infrastructure.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri and diehard abortion opponent, said he’d been assured pro-life forces had emerged victorious from the legislative battle, even though the text of the bill didn’t make that obvious.
"I’m not happy negotiators took out language that excluded Planned Parenthood from receiving government subsidies," he tweeted. "But I have been assured Planned Parenthood will still NOT be eligible."
The bill puts the Small Business Authority in charge of overseeing a massive $350 billion lending program aimed at helping a wide variety of small-time operations across the country meet their payroll and pay rent. But it also gives Trump’s SBA leeway to decide that Planned Parenthood doesn’t qualify.
The bill says that nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees can receive loans. But the SBA gets to rule on whether any of the dozens of individual Planned Parenthood affiliates scattered around the country should be counted by themselves or as a whole, according to experts who reviewed the bill.
There’s also a similar upper ceiling on revenue that functions essentially the same way, creating another avenue for officials to bar Planned Parenthood, legal experts said.
“The Small Business Administration retains discretion to exclude certain providers” from the massive new loan program, said Mara Youdelman, an attorney with the National Health Law Program, a civil rights advocacy group. “This is troubling, especially in the middle of a crisis in the health care system when we need every provider available to provide services.”
In a statement, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the group’s advocacy and political arm, acknowledged the impact of the provisions and criticized Republicans for including them.
“The Trump administration and Republican Congressional leadership once again used this must-pass relief bill to advance their anti-abortion agenda,” the group said. “The bill gives the Small Business Administration broad discretion to exclude Planned Parenthood affiliates and other non-profits serving people with low incomes and deny them benefits under the new small business loan program.”
Hyde Amendment provision
The stimulus package also includes language designed to keep states and local governments from using emergency funds for channeling money to pay for abortion.
The restriction links to the Hyde Amendment, which generally bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion unless the life of the mother is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest. In this instance, the limitation was quietly tacked onto a $150 billion regional stabilization fund designed to help governments cope with the coronavirus, legal experts said.
While those funds can be doled out with plenty of leeway for the most part, the new legislation manages to attach Hyde language by referencing the current appropriations law, “Public Law 116-94,” in an otherwise extremely bland-looking paragraph tucked 600 pages deep into the text.
“The state can’t step in and say, [abortion] is going to be included in the package of healthcare that we are using this stabilization money to cover,” said Leila Abolfazli, Director of Federal Reproductive Rights at the National Women’s Law Center. “It ties their hands if they start providing healthcare services.”
Cover: Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., talks with reporters after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon in Russell Building on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)