House Republicans Won't Back Down From Their New Restrictive Abortion Bill

Abby Ohlheiser
House Republicans Won't Back Down From Their New Restrictive Abortion Bill

The conservative push in the House to pass a restrictive abortion bill ticked up one more level on the futility meter today as the President officially indicated his intention to veto the measure, should it reach his desk. The bill, which would ban almost all abortions at 20 weeks based on a scientifically contested assertion that fetuses feel pain at that stage, will go to the House floor for debate tomorrow. 

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This bill, as we've explained before, is an attempt to parlay public outrage over the horrible narrative of the Kermit Gosnell trial into enough momentum to pass a law that would challenge the current precedent governing abortion laws nationwide: via a handful of Supreme Court decisions, that precedent guarantees a woman's right to have an abortion so long as the fetus is not "viable," generally understood to be around 24 weeks. If the bill — otherwise known as H.R. 1797 or the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" — were to become law, it'd lead to a Supreme Court challenge. This is exactly the criticism levied at the bill by the statement on the intended veto

"This bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and shows contempt for women's health and rights, the role doctors play in their patients' health care decisions, and the Constitution." 

But for anti-abortion activists, directly challenging Roe v. Wade is kind of the whole point. A handful of states are working on or have passed bills similar to H.R. 1797. A 20-week abortion ban in H.R. 1797 bill sponsor Rep. Trent Franks's home state of Arizona, for example, was recently struck down by a federal court. But this bill will not become law, so this endgame isn't possible, this time. Why are the Republicans, then, even bothering? 

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Just months ago, the GOP released a post-election autopsy that recommended all sorts of re-evaluations of party stances, including on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. The autopsy, among other things, was an attempt to bring the more conservative members of the party back into the establishment fold. The New York Times argued that the recent, bold nationwide push to get an abortion bill through to the Supreme Court demonstrates that a pull back on social issues just isn't realistically going to make it on the agenda, especially at the state level. Salon noted, for example, that there's a lot of money in play on social issues that could very well continue to make abortion a key issue for some Republicans. 

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And while a major motivation behind the House's insistence that this bill, which will not become law, is indeed about appeasing the conservative base, there's something else going on here, too. The Gosnell trial didn't become a rallying cry for anti-abortion activists and legislators because it confirmed what they already knew. They took it up because it, they thought, could change their opponent's minds. It's similar to a notion promoted by some Evangelical Christians, that of a Biblical "faith of a mustard seed" — in other words, that planting an idea, however so small, can later lead to a deeper commitment or conversion. It's why street preachers will hand you pamphlets with Bible verses on them: just seeing the words of the Bible, they believe, could trigger a series of events that make the reader convert. Earlier this year, Paul Ryan directly expressed this idea by arguing that "[anti-abortion activists] need to work with people who consider themselves pro-choice, because our task isn't to purge our ranks. It's to grow them." That's in part, why the internal party report's recommendation that, in order to reach more Americans, the party back off of more contentious issues is falling on deaf ears. Some legislators still hope that never stopping on their quest to pass restrictive, unconstitutional abortion bills might convert the pro-choice movement, or at least the apathetic, to their side. And when this bill, eventually, fails, there's always next time.