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(Washington, DC) – The United States House of Representatives approved a bill on October 13, 2011, that would put women’s lives at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill, if it becomes law, would reverse longstanding federal policy requiring hospitals to provide life-saving care regardless of expense, Human Rights Watch said.

The Protect Life Act, HR 358, would amend the healthcare reform law to grant hospitals far-reaching powers to deny patients abortion care, without any exception for emergency situations. US law currently requires hospitals receiving federal funds to provide emergency care to anyone in need up to the point at which they can be stabilized or transferred, if the original hospital is incapable of providing the care they need.

“The misnamed Protect Life Act is about allowing women to die if they need an emergency abortion,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is a vicious attack on women’s rights and on the most basic right to life.”

The bill passed 248 to 173, with no Republicans voting in opposition and 11 Democrats voting in favor. It is not expected to pass the US Senate, and the White House has indicated that the president would likely veto the bill were it to reach him.

The bill would also prohibit anyone receiving a federal subsidy for health insurance from using it to purchase a comprehensive insurance plan including abortion coverage, except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest.

The Protect Life Act is one of a series of attempts to curtail women’s rights by the House of Representatives this session, Human Rights Watch said. These include initiatives to narrow the definition of rape, end funding for providers of basic women’s health services, and cut off assistance for critical international family planning programs.

Abortion services have been subject to a federal funding ban since 1977, except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest. The majority of US states do not provide funding for abortion services that fall outside these exceptions. HR 358 would go farther by prohibiting people receiving federal healthcare subsidies from purchasing private comprehensive health insurance plans that cover abortion.

Because a safe abortion in the United States often costs between $500 and $1,500, an available safe procedure may remain out of reach for a woman if her insurance plan does not cover it, Human Rights Watch said. Low-income women may be forced to choose between carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term or taking desperate measures that could seriously jeopardize their health and lives.

“HR 358 would seriously undermine healthcare reform’s central objective of ensuring that Americans have access to care that can preserve their health and save their lives,” Rhoad said. “With the bill’s restrictions, women could be forced to continue pregnancies that threaten their health and even their lives.”

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