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Republicans’ tax bill is sneakily hacking away at abortion rights

It’s hidden in the section about college savings plans.

House Republicans Introduce Tax Reform Legislation Alex Wong/Getty Images

Buried in Republicans’ tax bill, in a provision about college savings accounts, is a pro-life political statement — one that doesn’t make much change to the tax law, and instead helps the right build a case against abortion.

On page 93 of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Republicans write that “nothing shall prevent an unborn child from being treated as a designated beneficiary” of a tax-advantaged college savings accounts, known as 529 plans, which allows parents to set aside money for expenses like tuition or education materials.

“The term ‘child in utero’ means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb,” the bill states.

To those familiar with 529 plans, it’s easy to see that this amendment is functionally useless. Current tax law allows both parents and future parents to set up 529 accounts, whether or not they are expecting a child.

Setting up a 529 plan simply requires a Social Security number, and people are entitled to set up the account in their own name, and then once they have a child they can change the beneficiary of the account to the child.

So if this doesn’t actually change how future parents save for college expenses, why is it in there at all? Abortion rights advocacy groups have flagged the provision as a likely anti-abortion political statement, and one that could help Republicans build a case toward redefining how the law defines a person — a crucial part of the abortion debate in the United States.

“It’s just another way to sneak into law conferring status on the unborn that could build this case” that a fetus should have the same rights as a child, Bonnie Stabile, a policy ethics expert with George Mason University, said.

The language came as a surprise to advocacy groups on both sides of the abortion rights issue. “We’re thrilled about it, but it wasn’t something that we were specifically calling for,” Tom McClusky, who is the president of the anti-abortion group March for Life Action, told Politico.

But already conservative and anti-abortion groups have been praising what it could mean for their movement. And Democrats are raising red flags about the provision — making the language easy fodder for a pro–abortion rights attack against the tax bill.

“It’s appalling that anti-choice extremists have even found a way to insert their agenda into the Republican tax plan,” Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, told Vox in an email. “This is more proof that the Republican plan focuses more on politics and special interests than helping middle-class families. Women deserve better.”

The spokesperson for the Republican office of the Ways and Means Committee, which drafted this bill, did not respond to a request for comment.