Morgan Simpson celebrates her graduation during the processional of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2012. The GOP tax bill would rewrite 529 college savings plans as a means to give new legal rights to the unborn.
Morgan Simpson celebrates her graduation during the processional of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2012. The GOP tax bill would rewrite 529 college savings plans as a means to give new legal rights to the unborn. (/ AP)

Our view: GOP tax plan would restrict reproductive rights through the unlikely route of tax-advantaged college savings

Overshadowed by the big-ticket items in the Republican tax plan now before Congress — slashing the corporate tax rate or capping the income tax deduction for mortgage interest and state and local taxes, for example — is a curious amendment to federal law governing college savings accounts also known as 529 plans. Under the proposal, a human fetus would be eligible to be designated the beneficiary of a tax-advantaged 529 account.

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At first glance, that might sound reasonable. Why not encourage parents to start saving for college even before a child is born? But that’s not what’s actually going on here. Under current law, parents can already save for college in this manner. Any expectant mother or father is welcome to open a 529 account at any time — even before conception, incidentally — and then transfer the balance to a child once that child is born and receives a Social Security number. There’s no penalty and hardly any fuss. The law already makes 529 plans fully transferable within the immediate family, including sibling to sibling.

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What’s actually going on in the GOP tax plan is a back-door attempt to have fetuses — perhaps even before they are implanted in the uterus — recognized as human beings. Indeed, the politics of abortion are plastered all over the provision, which refers to fetuses as “unborn children” which is defined as a “child” in utero “at any stage of development.” In other words, advocates want to give clusters of cells in women’s bodies unprecedented rights.

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At some level, this isn’t surprising. There’s been a wave of such back-door legal status efforts at the state level across the country. Such “personhood” bills have been resisted, but anti-abortion groups have also had some success in restricting access to abortion from laws that impose onerous waiting periods and or that clinicians have hospital admitting privileges at hospitals or their facilities meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. The net effect has been to deny U.S. women their reproductive rights through whatever means opponents deem necessary.

Admittedly, college savings is an unusual pathway, but it’s not difficult to appreciate the logic. The next step would surely be to grant Social Security numbers to “unborn children” so they can have the 529 accounts in their names. And if fetuses have essentially achieved personhood through this particular section of the tax code, what’s to stop enterprising lawyers from suing their mothers (perhaps soon-to-be-redefined as “incubators”) on their behalf? Did the mother take a drink or medication? A judge might rule that the “unborn child” in the womb is being endangered by such actions.

What makes this latest “war on women” move by Republicans all the more galling is that their tax plan is generally bad for higher eduction. Not only would the measure expand the 529 tax benefit so that it can be applied to K-12 schooling and thus dilute the boost to college savings, the GOP has proposed to impose a new 1.4 percent tax on college and university endowment income beginning with schools with endowments of at least $100,000 per student. The likely impact of that tax? Colleges say it’s going to mean less scholarship money for lower-income students. Meanwhile, the plan gets tough on graduate students, too, taxing tuition waivers as a form of income.

Whether a school like Harvard University with its $37.1 billion endowment really has to cut financial aid to cope with the new excise tax is debatable, but less affluent schools are probably going to feel the pinch. And, by the way, what kind of country is taking money out of its universities while simultaneously revoking the estate tax, a move that chiefly benefits billionaires? Surely, it would be a nation with some seriously misplaced priorities. Never mind that the 529 tax benefit is already skewed to help the affluent who can afford to set aside thousands of dollars each year for a child’s education.

Any Republican who claims to support a woman’s right to choose and votes for the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act with the current 529 language has betrayed their constituents (we’re looking at you, Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski). If anti-choice members of Congress want to subjugate women, let them do so in the open with a bill (assuming there’s one that can pass constitutional scrutiny). Using the college savings plan to quietly achieve the same ends is not fooling anyone.

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