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Abortions in D.C. and the 'No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act'

February 2, 2011 - 11:00 AM
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How abortion restrictions will affect the District (Photo: Associated Press)

The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act"—a proposed bill that would restrict rape victims' access to abortion, deter private insurance coverage of the procedure, and impose tax penalties on abortion-related care—would impact the women of the District of Columbia most of all. While the 50 states remain free to fund abortions with local taxes, the legislation bars D.C. from doing the same. "Any reference to funds appropriated by Federal law shall be treated as including any amounts within the budget of the District of Columbia," the bill reads. "'Federal Government’ includes the government of the District of Columbia."

In defending the legislation, Rep. Chris Smith said that the bill would effectively cut abortions by a quarter in affected areas. "President Obama has said he wants abortion to be rare," Rep. Smith said in a District press conference last month. "Well, Mr. Obama, here is a bill for you. Even the Guttmacher Institute, the former research arm of Planned Parenthood, says that taxpayer funding bans are a proven abortion reduction method. According to Guttmacher, studies show that when abortion is not publicly funded, abortions in the covered population are reduced by roughly 25 percent."

So: How would the legislation affect abortions in D.C.?

The District of Columbia has long been barred from funding abortions with local taxes. Though that funding ban was finally lifted in 2009, the new rules have yet to yield a publicly-funded elective abortion in the District. "The ban, even though it has been technically lifted, has not been remedied since nothing has changed yet for D.C. residents," says Tiffany Reed, president of the DC Abortion Fund, a group that raises funds to help low-income women pay for abortions. "We do not have any clinics yet that accept DC Medicaid as payment to my knowledge," Reed says. "DC Medicaid has paid for rape/incest survivors in the past, but it's rare. I don't want to give people the wrong impression—women are not getting Medicaid-funded abortions in DC."

If Rep. Smith's bill becomes law, District women may never see coverage for elective abortions. In fact, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" would further restrict the rare abortions covered by local Medicaid. The bill only allows public funds for ending pregnancies that result from "forcible" rapes; that restriction could deny funding for rape victims who are drugged, passed out, or under the age of consent.

Mostly, Smith's legislation would secure D.C.'s position as a scapegoat in the national abortion wars. Even with restrictions on federal and local abortion funding, D.C.'s abortion rate is still ten points higher than the national average. And the Guttmacher Institute denies claims that initiatives like Smith's would help make abortion "rare" across the U.S. as a whole. Last fall, the Guttmacher Institute addressed Smith's 25 percent claim, calling the statistic a "serious misuse of Guttmacher data." The institute's studies "do indeed conclude that denial of abortion insurance coverage in the form of Medicaid funding impedes a sizable minority of America's poorest women from obtaining the procedure," and a pair of Guttmacher studies found that "about one in four women who were denied funding for an abortion might be likely to have one if funding were restored."

But making abortion more difficult for the small amount of poor women who qualify for Medicaid coverage won't make the procedure a rarity for most U.S. women. "[A]lthough the impact on Medicaid enrollees in states that have implemented the funding restrictions may be substantial, the impact . . . on the overall level of abortion in the United States would be minimal," the Institute claims, because "only a small proportion of women are poor enough to be enrolled in Medicaid and therefore affected by the restrictions." Here's the real impact of legislation like Smith's: "according to the Guttmacher analysis, lifting the funding restrictions would translate into only a 5% rise in the total number of abortions in the group of states in which funding is currently restricted," translating to "only a 2.5% increase in the total number of abortions performed nationwide."

While added barriers don't deter most women from seeking abortions, they can make the procedure more difficult, expensive, and dangerous—particularly for the nation's poorest women. "Even if coverage may not determine whether most women actually obtain a procedure, it may have a major impact on the circumstances under which they do so and on the perception of abortion as a legitimate health care service," the Guttmacher Institute reports."Research on poor women affected by the funding restrictions under Medicaid shows both the financial obstacles women living at or near the poverty line must surmount and the personal indignities they must endure to obtain an abortion in the absence of Medicaid coverage." Restricting abortion coverage for poor women also leads to later-term abortions: "poor women having an abortion do so more than a week later than do more affluent women," the Institute reports, "likely reflecting their increased difficulty in securing funds."

The District of Columbia has been dealing with the impact of these abortion restrictions for years. If Smith's legislation fails, we might finally find out how our women fare without them.

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  1. braver braver

    S B

    Feb 03, 2011 - 10:11:45 AM

    So many people (especially conservatives) want to penalize low-income people for having babies by things like stricter rules and lower payments for TANF. But they also make it harder to not have babies. What do they expect people to do? "Abstain" is not a useful answer.

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  2. Over the River Over the River

    Over_the River

    Feb 02, 2011 - 09:25:13 PM

    Oh Amanda I am so happy you posted this. For some time I have been upset that only women with enough discretionary income would be able to afford reproductive services. A woman's right to her body should not be a choice between dinner on the table or an abortion.

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