House Republican leaders have “abruptly” decided to pull an anti-abortion bill amid a revolt by female GOP lawmakers concerned that the legislation’s restrictive language would once again ruin the party’s chances of broadening its appeal to women and younger voters.
The GOP-crafted legislation proposed to ban abortion after 20 weeks, a policy that conservatives generally support — and have had great success passing in state houses. But the Associated Press reported late Wednesday night that GOP leadership had reversed course on the restrictive measure after female lawmakers and moderate members of the caucus withdrew their support.
The bill, HR 36, has passed the House twice in recent years and was expected to be approved by the full GOP-controlled Congress this year, particularly since the Republican leadership has turned to restrictions on later abortions as a top policy priority. It was introduced on the very first day of the 114th Congress’ session and had been scheduled for a vote in the House on Thursday, coinciding with the annual March for Life, a gathering that brings thousands of anti-abortion activists to Washington to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
In recent days, as many as two dozen Republicans had raised concerns with the so-called “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”, which only included exceptions for cases when the mother’s life is in danger, or the pregnancy is the result of a rape or of incest against a minor. The bill also specified that a rape would have to be reported to law enforcement before a woman could obtain an abortion at or after 20 weeks.
Politico reported Wednesday that GOP leaders pushing the bill were exploring changes to the legislation after some female Republicans pulled their names from sponsorship in protest of the language regarding exemptions for rape. Some Republicans worried that the 20-week abortion measure might alienate millennials and women voters. But several female lawmakers were also upset over its clause stating that women can be exempt from the ban in cases of rape only if they reported the rape to authorities.
Despite the objections — and threats of a White House veto — as of Wednesday afternoon, GOP leaders were insistent they would move ahead with the legislation. But after “all day” meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers, the defections and caucus dissension proved to be too much and the leadership decided to pull the bill from consideration rather than risk further embarrassment.
Instead, the House will vote Thursday on the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”, a bill that passed the House last year and is already largely in effect under the Hyde Amendment. According to Politico, “[t]he new legislation doesn’t stand a chance to become law, but House Republican leadership wants to have some sort of pro-life bill on the floor Thursday when the anti-abortion March for Life comes to Washington.”
It’s also unlikely that we’ve seen the last of HR 36. Abortion opponents are confident that they’ve found a winning strategy in 20-week bans. Last year, at the Republican National Committee’s annual meeting, the group approved a new “pro-life resolution” encouraging GOP candidates to speak out against abortion rights. That resolution cited 20-week bans as one restriction that’s politically advantageous for Republicans, since it tends to poll better with the American public.
By some measures, they’re right. This policy — typically construed as a “fetal pain ban,” since it’s based on the scientifically inaccurate claim that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy — is picking up steam on a legislative level. Ten states already have 20-week bans on the books, and at least 12 different state-level fetal pain bans were brought forward in 2014 alone.
The push to cut off access to later abortion services has always relied on framing 20-week bans as moderate and popular. This has been working really well for the anti-choice community, which is able to capitalize on emotional outrage about “fetal pain” and come across as entirely willing to compromise. Lila Rose, the president of the right-wing group Live Action, often points out that 20 is exactly half of a full-term 40 week pregnancy, so it’s a perfect “middle ground”.
But don’t be fooled. The political momentum for 20-week bans isn’t actually about compromising, or about adhering to a specific deadline that will supposedly prevent fetuses from feeling pain. It’s really about finding an initial foothold to chip away at Roe v. Wade, and then continuing to move the goal posts. It’s the first step in a larger strategy to cut off legal abortion access altogether, cloaked under the guise of a “moderate” policy.
The effects of such a law could be devastating. Abortions after 20 weeks are extremely rare, representing just 1.5 percent of all abortion procedures nationwide, but tthe women who need later abortion care are typically individuals in dire circumstances — like impoverished women who struggle to get to a clinic earlier, or women who discover serious health issues and are forced to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy.
A vote on a national 20-week abortion ban will likely be scheduled in the future, but the AP notes that more dangerous anti-abortion efforts are already working their way through a number of state legislatures, including a bill in Kansas that would ban doctors from using forceps, tongs or other medical implements to complete an abortion, and:
“A bill in Arkansas that would require women seeking abortion-inducing medication to take it in the presence of a doctor. …
“A bill in Mississippi that would increase the minimum waiting time from 24 hours to 72 hours before a woman could obtain an abortion.
“A bill in Missouri that would require pregnant women to get permission from the fathers before having abortions, except in cases of rape and incest.”