Legislative progress has been rough going for Republicans in their first year in control of the house, senate and the presidency. Despite repeated efforts, they have failed to deliver on their most significant promise to their base: their complete failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
And given the indictments for former GOP campaign officials, infighting made public via Twitter, and cabinet and White House officials resigning from their posts on a regular basis, it's clear the GOP is moving into the tax bill debate with some desperation to deliver a win to a lot of different constituencies.
That may explain why the GOP has included a very strange clause in their proposed tax plan. Hidden among massive corporate tax breaks and the other items on their long standing wish list is a curious provision allowing families to open 529 educational savings accounts for "unborn children" – essentially college plans for fetuses.
As a parent, I am deeply sympathetic to the spiraling costs of college and the constant worry of being able to afford higher education for kids. But this provision is so bizarre that the Brookings Institute calls it "not an economic one, but an existential one."
Affirming this language through the tax code would lay the foundation for "personhood," the idea that life begins at conception thus granting a fetus in utero legal rights. It's long been the holy grail of the anti-choice movement, since it would be the basis on which they would argue to outlaw abortion entirely.
But they have a problem: "personhood" is so unpopular, it has lost every time it has been on the ballot, even in deep red states like Mississippi and North Dakota. When Cory Gardner ran for Senate in Colorado, he had to spend a considerable amount of time distancing himself from his prior support for personhood measures, even going so far as to claim the bill he cosponsored did not exist.
So to throw their base a bone, the GOP has chosen to hide this deeply unpopular and extremely dangerous provision deep in the tax code where they think no one will find it. And if it goes unnoticed and passes into the final bill, it will have succeeded where they have always failed: in establishing a definition of when life begins that goes against legal precedent, science, and public opinion.
Never mind that the provision is unnecessary: Americans can already set up 529s for the children they wish to have. A 529 that's already seeded with capital in a parent's name can be transferred to a child once that child is born. And never mind that the implementation would be a mess begging all sorts of questions as to when you get social security numbers and other identifying factors for children.
The anti-choice movement knows this, but they simply don't care as their real intent was never to provide hard working families a tax break. It was something else entirely: As Jeanne Mancini of March for Life told Politico:
A child in the womb is just as human as you or I yet, until now, the U.S. tax code has failed to acknowledge the unborn child—all while granting tax breaks for those seeking an abortion under the pretense of 'healthcare.'… The proposed tax plan is a huge leap forward for an antiquated tax code, and we hope this is the first step in expanding the child tax credit to include unborn children as well.
And here's the kicker: this same crew is absolutely fine with the fact that this bill actually cuts the modest student debt relief provision that exist in current tax laws to help struggling young people. Bizarrely, it also cuts the adoption tax credit, only allowing biological parents to get a break for having kids.
The tax bill is a horror in many different ways that will be publicly debated over the next days and weeks. But the dangerous "personhood" language needs to be highlighted, as it has the potential to dramatically shift the ideological underpinnings of our laws and our culture while having nothing whatsoever to do with helping middle class Americans get ahead.
We should be raising the alarm and shouting this from the rooftops. The conversation about when life begins belongs with our scientists, our clergy, and our families. The last place it belongs is in our tax code.
Commentary by Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
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