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Fierce Debate in Congress on Abortion Funding

WASHINGTON (CN) - A Republican bill that aims to keep federal tax payers from footing the bill for abortions grew heated during a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing as Democrats championed women's rights while Republicans advocated for "innocent unborn children."

Rep. Christopher Smith, R.-N.J., introduced H.R. 7, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, in May 2013. The bill prohibits the use of federal funds and federal health care plans for all abortions except in the case of rape and incest pregnancies or in a case where the mother faces death unless an abortion is performed.

The bill also proposes extending the prohibition on abortion funding to the District of Columbia.

The Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, an arm of the House Judiciary Committee, debated the bill Thursday morning with discourse that often reverted to each party's ideological views on abortion rather than the bill itself.

"I'm struggling some to figure out why we're here today," Florida Democrat Ted Deutch said. "Federal funding hasn't been used for abortions in 30 years ... so if the problem is trying to keep taxpayers from footing the bill for abortions, mission accomplished."

Deutch was referring to the Hyde Amendment, a rider that bars the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortions. It has found its way into federal appropriations bills every year since 1976.

Deutch, along with Democrats Jerry Nadler of New York and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, regarded abortion as a constitutionally protected right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and leaned on the testimony of Susan Wood, an associate professor of health policy at George Washington University, to characterize the bill as backdoor legislation restricting this right.

"[This legislation] would virtually eliminate abortion coverage from the private insurance market and impose unprecedented new tax burdens on small businesses that want to offer abortion coverage to their employees," Wood said during her testimony.

On the other side, Republicans were not shy about their thoughts on the bill and the abortion topic.

"The two most important questions asked today are: does abortion take the life of a child, and, if so, should taxpayers be forced to pay for it," Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said at the conclusion of the two-hour hearing.

Tea Party Congressman Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, became emotional as he told the story of the birth of his first daughter, a premature baby who could fit in his hand.

"I would do anything to keep her alive," Gohmert said, "and it is hard for me to fathom someone wanting to kill what I called a child, what some may call an embryo, when she's living in my hand at the same time a child of the same age is living in someone's womb."

Richard Doerflinger, the secretariat of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, testified in favor of the bill, stating that "in fact unborn children are actually alive until they are made actually dead by abortion."

When Cohen cited the abortion stance of Pope Francis, who has garnered praise from the left with sympathetic statements regarding homosexuality and abortion, Doerflinger said that "the church isn't going to change its position on this."

Democrats also expressed concerns that passage of the bill would particularly affect the District of Columbia, which relies on the federal government for its budget.

Nadler asked Chairman Franks before witness testimony to allow quasi-House member Eleanor Norton, who represents the district as a nonvoting member of the House, to give an opening statement regarding the effect the law would have on her district. Franks shot the request down, however, stating that Democrats could have used Norton as their one witness for the hearing but opted not to do so.

The argument between Nadler and Franks stretched out for several minutes and never fully left the discourse of the hearing, with Nadler desperately calling for a last word as Franks concluded the hearing by thanking the witnesses and ignoring Nadler.

If passed, the bill will eliminate tax credits for small-employer health insurance expenses that include coverage for abortions. It will also prohibit federal employees from using flexible health spending accounts to pay for abortions.

The bill remains at the subcommittee level.

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