The right's obsession with abortion

A budget battle within a culture war

April 10, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Republicans in Congress, including Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, would require a woman's accountant — or perhaps an agent of the Internal Revenue Service — to be informed of the circumstances necessitating an abortion. Even when paying for the abortion with her own money, a woman would have to prove to her CPA or the IRS that she was the victim of rape or incest. Otherwise, she would have to forget about deducting the cost of the abortion as a medical expense.

"Women who paid for an abortion using money saved in health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts would have to report the amount as taxable income, except in cases of rape or incest, or if the woman's life would be in danger," a website for accountants reported last week, after a vote by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Republicans also want to stop small businesses from getting tax credits for offering employees health insurance that includes abortions, essentially raising taxes on small businesses — something generally viewed by conservatives as verboten. Republicans also want to ban insurance companies from covering abortions if they participate in one of those state health care exchanges mandated under the new federal law. With all this, restrictions on safe, legal abortion in the United States will extend to a much larger share of the population than current law does.

And here we were, thinking that all those right-wingers were a bunch of Ayn Rand types who wanted to get government out of our private lives and off the backs of business. Mr. Harris supposedly went to Washington to focus on deficit reduction and job creation.

But, turns out, the biggest struggles over the federal budget that led to stalemate were ideological social issues — a renewed fight over abortion, federal grants to Planned Parenthood and whether the Hyde amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for the procedure, goes far enough. Not even tea party voters could have expected this kind of obsession with abortion from the candidates they supported.

But that's what we have. Today's Republicans do not live by tea alone, as many claim. The script still calls for consistent pandering to an ideological base that continues to battle a culture war — while most Americans worry about the economy, their jobs, the cost of food, energy and health care, and what kind of a future their kids will have.

Mr. Harris is the freshman congressman who unseated a moderate Republican incumbent, Wayne Gilchrest, in the 2008 primary, then lost the general election in the Year of Obama to a blue-dog Democrat, Frank Kratovil. Mr. Harris came roaring back in 2010 and soundly defeated Mr. Kratovil.

In a recent town hall meeting in Harford County, Mr. Harris criticized "Obamacare" and spoke of the need to create jobs, to cut the size of government and to reduce the nation's debt. There was no mention of abortion reported.

But Mr. Harris is one of many Republicans who attached their names to an array of bills that constitute an unusually vigorous attack on a woman's right to an abortion and, under the new health care law, her right to have the cost of the procedure deducted from taxable income.

Mr. Harris is right in the thick of this. His name is attached to a half-dozen anti-abortion bills, and, because he's a doctor, he appears to be something of a new darling of the anti-abortion crowd. I'm sure voters of Maryland's First District, which includes counties with breathtaking unemployment rates — Somerset (11.5 percent), Dorchester (11.7) and Worcester (18) — will be relieved to know that their new congressman, rather than focusing on improving their living conditions, is making a name for himself as a rising anti-abortion crusader.

Last month, Mr. Harris was the featured speaker at the spring banquet of Students for Life of America, a college group that associates abortions with the Nazi Holocaust. The student group's annual award is named for Sophie and Hans Scholl, German college students who were executed for speaking against Hitler's regime. The SFLA gives its award "to students who, like Sophie and Hans Scholl, speak out every day in defense of the preborn and against the injustice of abortion on their campus."

Mr. Harris was invited to the event to speak about "the importance of pro-life medical professionals from his experience as a pro-life doctor." The event was in Arlington, Va., so it probably didn't take much time away from Mr. Harris's mission — and it's his primary mission, right? — to create jobs for his fellow Americans.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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