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House GOP cracks down on abortion loophole

Congressional Republicans have taken the next step in a battle against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about taxpayer-funded abortions in California. 

The GOP-led House of Representatives voted 245-182 for the so-called Conscience Protection Act, which would reinforce a longtime congressional mandate against public funds for abortions. 

The issue was raised after HHS officials in June affirmed that California could require abortion coverage to be included in statewide insurance plans – including those offered by religious groups – as the state had already decided in 2014. Before that 2014 state mandate, California insurers were allowed to exempt customers with religious objections to abortion.

At the time, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the HHS decision “unbelievable” in a statement, and said he and eight other congressmen immediately met with HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to express “outrage and bewilderment.” He added that the decision “forces the House to explore all legislative options.”

On Wednesday night, McCarthy said in a floor speech that the legislation “prevents anyone from being coerced into supporting abortion.”

“Voting for this bill isn’t voting against abortion. It’s voting against compulsion. It’s voting to reaffirm that mutual respect is necessary for a free society, and only with that respect can America live in the liberty we have so long enjoyed,” he said.

Democratic opposition was swift and solid, as legislators said such a law would open the door for anti-abortion employers to impose their views on employees by eliminating abortion coverage from their insurance plans. Others claimed it was a gift to conservative voters on the same week that the GOP’s party platform was being written ahead of next week’s presidential convention in Cleveland.

The White House said the bill “would limit women’s health care options,” and promised a veto if it reaches President Obama’s desk.

Despite a steady stream of Democrats denouncing the bill, not even all Republicans said they agree – GOP Rep. Richard Hanna of New York was the lone Republican to oppose the bill. He issued a statement asserting that if the bill became law, hospitals could withhold health care for patients, and employers could refuse to offer insurance or offer only plans that match their own private beliefs.

“A woman’s boss should have no say in her personal health care choices or how she chooses to spend her earned compensation in the form of health benefits,” Hanna said. “Most disturbing, this bill could jeopardize women’s lives in emergency situations if hospitals or health care workers are allowed to withhold medically necessary care or refuse to make referrals or offer transfer to another health care facility.”

Specifically, the legislation passed Wednesday seeks to untangle the California decision by barring any federal, state or local government from penalizing, discriminating or retaliating against any health care provider based on any decision to cover abortion procedures. It also boosts legal rights for such individuals and groups that feel discriminated because of their anti-abortion beliefs, either by filing a complaint with HHS or a civil lawsuit in federal court.

Despite uphill prospects in the Senate – and the White House’s veto threat – House Speaker Paul Ryan intends to push for the legislation when Congress reconvenes this fall.

“This bill does not ban or restrict abortion in any way,” Ryan said in a floor speech. “This bill does not change any medical standards or contracts. It does not change any laws regarding emergency treatment. All it does is protect a person’s conscience.”