Blumenthal joins battle over GOP abortion bill

WASHINGTON–The emotionally-fraught issue of abortion usually doesn’t get much attention in Connecticut.

Pro-life lawmakers haven’t been able to get much traction with Republican legislative leaders in recent years, and so pro-choice Democrats haven’t had much of a fight on their hands.

Not so in Washington, where Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal has jumped head first into the roiling waters over women’s access to abortion. Blumenthal has long had an interest in, and passion for, this issue. But at the state level in Hartford, he never got much of a platform.

Now, in Congress, where the House Republican majority is pushing new abortion restrictions, he’s got one.

These measures represent “an unprecedented assault on women’s health,” Blumenthal said at his first Capitol Hill news conference on Tuesday. “It creates a reprehensible risk to the health of countless women across the country.”

Blumenthal’s press conference came a day after he co-authored an op-ed on the issue for EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women. And just a few days after he posted a blog on the Huffington Post criticizing the GOP’s abortion proposals.

“It may be a bit of a culture shock for Mr. Blumenthal to go to Washington where the pro-life side has equal standing,” said Peter Wolfgang, head of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which advocates against abortion, gay marriage, and other issues.

“Here in Hartford, the pro-abortion side has a monopoly, a lock on political power,” Wolfgang said. “But down in D.C., abortion is an issue that’s much more in play, so I think we’ll see Mr. Blumenthal talk a lot more about it.”

House Republicans are certainly giving Blumenthal and other Democrats plenty to talk about.

On Tuesday, a House committee took up a bill that would make permanent a ban on federal funding for abortion. Known as the Hyde amendment, the measure has typically been renewed each year.

But the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., would also overturn current tax breaks for health insurance if that coverage includes abortion services.

For example, self-employed individuals who now get a tax deduction for their health insurance would not get that benefit if their policies covered abortion. In addition, individuals who have health savings accounts would not be able to use that money for any abortion-related services.

A second proposal, set for a hearing in the House later this week, would bar individuals who accept federal subsidies, available under the health reform law starting in 2014, from purchasing health insurance that covers abortion, even if they pay for that service with their own separate funds.

Republicans say these new measures are needed to insure that no federal dollars help subsidize abortion. “We will live up to our commitment to make sure there is no government funding for abortion,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on Tuesday. “This is consistant with where the American people are. This is consistent with cutting spending.”

But Blumenthal and other critics say Republicans are trying to make abortion essentially unavailable. The fear is that with these new restrictions, health insurers will drop such coverage.

“It is overreaching and intrusion of the most reprehensible kind,” Blumenthal said. “It reaches into American families. It reaches into private decisions between doctor and patient.”

In a brief interview afterwards, Blumenthal noted that he’s been involved in the abortion-rights battle for more than three decades. He cited his one-time role as a law clerk for then-Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, his efforts in the state legislature to codify Roe v. Wade, and his work as the state attorney general to prevent protests or blockades that inhibit women’s access to clinics.

As he said during the press conference, “I’m new to the Senate, but I’m not new to this battle.”

Asked why he chose to focus on this issue so intensely and early in his Senate term, Blumenthal conceded that it’s not usually a hot-button question back home.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Connecticut because people… have recognized the importance of this issue and have elected leaders who are committed to protection women’s health care,” he said. “But our rights and women’s health care [in Connecticut] will be jeopardized along with the rest of the country” if these measures win approval.

“We are really at a crossroads on women’s health care with these measures,” he said. And he made it clear he plans to be out front as the debate heats up.

“I can pledge for myself,” he said, “that I will do everything possible to make sure that [Rep. Smith’s bill] never becomes law in this country.”