Republicans target abortion pill access as government shutdown threat looms

11 months ago 13

A Republican-backed spending bill threatens to end national access to mail-order abortion pills and cut billions from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides low-income families with food benefits.

The legislation is part of a spate of appropriations bills that lawmakers will debate this month, and which Congress must reach a decision on by the end of September in order to pass a budget for the 2024 fiscal year and avoid a federal shutdown. It was already approved by a House appropriations subcommittee in May, while being condemned by Democrats and causing internal rifts among Republicans. Republicans have added several provisions to the bill that would have wide-ranging effects on reproductive rights, health policy and benefits.

The food and agriculture spending bill is the latest front in the rightwing campaign against reproductive rights. In the year since the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, Republicans have passed bills in more than a dozen states that ban or severely restrict abortion access. Ending access to mail-order pills that induce abortions would complicate and limit efforts from abortion rights groups and physicians to provide care for people in states with abortion bans.

Specifically, the bill would reverse a 2021 Food and Drug Administration policy that allowed people to get the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone – which can be used up to 10 weeks after conception – through the mail rather than via in-person visits to providers. The FDA had temporarily lifted restrictions on the drug during the Covid-19 pandemic, before later making those changes permanent. But the drug, which is widely used for abortion and can also be used for managing miscarriages, has been the center of legal challenges and rightwing attempts to prevent its use ever since.

House Republicans’ messaging on the bill claims that their provisions “reins in wasteful Washington spending” and “protects the lives of unborn children”. The bill would also decrease the Snap benefit program – formerly known as “food stamps” – by $32bn compared with 2023 levels, as well as prevent the health and human services department from putting limits on the maximum amount of nicotine in cigarettes.

The approaching fight over spending bills has echoes of the standoff over debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year, when Democrats accused Republicans of holding the government hostage in an attempt to exact sweeping cuts to federal programs. Hardline Republicans similarly pushed to shift their party towards far-right policies during those negotiations as well.

Democrats are eager to prevent a government shutdown along the lines of the 2018 shutdown during the Trump administration that left about 800,000 government workers without pay and lasted longer than any previous shutdown in US history. But some have called for establishing red lines around what compromises they are willing to make, with a number of House Democrats such as the Massachusetts representative Jim McGovern pushing back against attempts to cut Snap funding and other conservative provisions in recent legislation. House Democrats previously tried to add two amendments to the food and agriculture spending bill that would have eliminated the anti-abortion provision, but both failed.

Several Republicans have also spoken out against the food and agriculture bill, including the New York representative Marc Molinaro who told Politico he will vote against the legislation if it comes to the floor. Molinaro, along with another New York Republican lawmaker, previously denounced a conservative Texas judge’s ruling that threatened to remove FDA approval of mifepristone.

Molinaro’s opposition to the bill highlights a rift within the Republican party over just how far to push an anti-abortion agenda that has proven nationally unpopular and contributed to electoral losses in many states.

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Abortion policy has divided the GOP as hard-right Republicans, as well as powerful Christian conservative activist groups, have demanded far-reaching bans on abortion access. Others, such as the South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace, have warned that Republicans need to “read the room” on abortion or face defeat in elections.

The Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has meanwhile been left scrambling to manage the different factions of his party as votes on must-pass appropriations bills loom. In addition to limiting abortion access and benefits, far-right Republicans have sought to use spending bills to greatly reduce military aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russian invasion.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from earlier this year saw that support for abortion access was at an all-time high, and included a finding that about one-third of Republicans also broadly back the right to abortion access.

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