Opinion: The latest fight over federal tax dollars and abortion

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The tussle over the House GOP proposal to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood overlooks an inconvenient truth: Even if Planned Parenthood received zero federal dollars, every taxpayer would still be subsidizing abortions.

That’s not because doctors who perform abortions can bill the federal government for the procedure -- they can’t. The annual appropriations bills include the so-called Hyde Amendment barring federal dollars from being used to pay for abortions (except in cases of incest, rape or danger to the mother’s life), either directly or through federal employees’ health benefits.


But tax law does allow companies to exempt from their employees’ taxable income the health benefits they receive, including policies that pay for abortions. The premiums that employees pay for those policies are deductible too, as are the premiums paid by the self-employed. The exemption and/or deduction reduces the cost of insurance policies by up to 35%, a pretty hefty subsidy for the abortions covered by those policies.

Congress could end that subsidy by removing the exemption and deduction for the cost of policies with abortion coverage, but it doesn’t. My guess is that those who get upset about appropriations that could be used for abortions don’t grasp how tax breaks are a subsidy too. But the larger point is that you could probably find lots of indirect ways that abortions are supported by federal tax dollars. Once Congress starts trying to control the indirect effects of its tax and spending policies, where does it stop?

The issue of indirect aid for abortions bedeviled Congress during debate over the healthcare reform bill in 2009 and 2010. Now it’s complicating the negotiations over a bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, threatening to cause all non-essential federal services to shut down at midnight.

Democrats claim that the last sticking point in the talks is the House GOP’s proposed ban on family planning grants in general and aid to Planned Parenthood in particular. (According to The Times and Politico, Republicans say the two sides are still divided on the fundamental issues of what to cut and by how much.) Even though the family planning dollars can be used only for contraception and reproductive health services, not abortions, proponents of the ban say the grants free up money for abortions at clinics such as Planned Parenthood’s.

Money is fungible, that’s true. But once Congress starts trying to control the indirect effects of federal subsidies, there’s no end to the mischief that could ensue. Should the National Cancer Institute be prohibited from providing grants to clinicians at teaching hospitals that instruct obstetrics and gynecology students in how to perform abortions? Should students attending colleges that provide medical abortions (that is, through drugs that induce miscarriages) be denied federal financial aid?

I could come up with a longer parade of horribles, but you get the idea. Cracking down on federally subsidized organizations’ use of non-federal dollars for legal purposes gets intrusive in a hurry. It’s one thing to cut funding for family planning and reproductive health services to low-income Americans because it’s a low priority, even though the services help prevent abortions and promote public health. But the House GOP apparently wants to bar Planned Parenthood from taking part in the program because of other things the group does with other dollars. That’s a slippery slope leading to place Congress shouldn’t want to go.



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-- Jon Healey