WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-led House on Tuesday sought to shore up their support from conservatives with a vote on one of the most far-reaching anti-abortion bills in years.
The measure to restrict abortions to the first 20 weeks after conception will be ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate but not necessarily by voters in next year's GOP primaries. Supporters see it as an opportunity to make inroads against legalized abortion while Democratic opponents portrayed it as yet another instance of what they call the GOP's war on women.
The legislation, heading for near-certain passage in the House, contravenes the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions and invites court challenges that could eventually force the Supreme Court to reconsider that decision.
The "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" will die in the Senate and even, if it reached the White House, would be vetoed. The White House, in its veto threat statement, said the measure was "an assault on a woman's right to choose" and "a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade."
But anti-abortion proponents and social conservatives in the Republican Party, who have seen their issue overshadowed by economic concerns since Republicans recaptured the House in 2010, were energized.
Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, called it "the most important pro-life bill to be considered by the U.S. Congress in the last 10 years." She said it could take years, "but I believe that this bill will eventually become law and today we are starting this journey."
Democrats, on the other hand, derided the legislation as an attempt by GOP leaders to appease their restless base and predicted that the move would backfire on Republican efforts to improve their standing among women.
"They are going down the same road that helped women elect Barack Obama president of the United States," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to the House. The bill is so egregious to women, said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., that women are reminded that "the last possible thing they ever want to do is leave their health policy to these men in blue suits and red ties."
Democrats repeatedly pointed out that the Judiciary Committee that approved the measure last week on a party-line vote is made up of 23 Republican men and not one woman.
Republicans countered by assigning women to conspicuous roles in managing the bill on the House floor and presiding over the chamber. The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who normally would have managed the bill, was consigned to a smaller role after he sparked a controversy last week by saying that rape resulted in few pregnancies.
After Franks' remark, which he later modified, Republicans quietly altered the bill to include an exception to the 20-week ban for instances of rape and incest. Democrats still balked, saying the exception would require a woman to prove that she had reported the rape to authorities.
The bill has an exception when a physical condition threatens the life of the mother, but Democratic efforts to include other health exceptions were rebuffed.
Most states allow abortions up to the point when the fetus becomes viable, generally considered to be about 24 weeks of pregnancy. The legislation would ban abortions that take place 20 weeks after conception, which is equivalent to 22 weeks of pregnancy.
Some 10 states have passed laws similar to the House bill, and several are facing court challenges. Last month a federal court struck down as unconstitutional Arizona's law, which differs slightly in banning abortion 20 weeks after pregnancy rather than conception.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health research organization that supports abortion rights, in 2009 1.3 percent of the 1.2 million abortions in the country, about 15,600, occurred 20 weeks after the fetus was conceived.
The Republican leadership, which has been focused on economic and fiscal issues and, more recently administration scandals, gave the green light to the abortion bill after social conservatives coalesced around the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor who was recently sentenced to life in prison for what prosecutors said was the murder of three babies delivered alive. Abortion foes said it exemplified the inhumanity of late-term abortions.
"After this Kermit Gosnell trial, (and) some of the horrific acts that were going on, the vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill, and so do I," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The original House bill was aimed only at the District of Columbia, but was expanded to cover the entire nation after the Gosnell case received national attention.
Supporters of the legislation also contended that fetuses can feel pain after about 20 weeks, and the bill cites extensively from studies agreeing with that conclusion. Opponents say such findings are inconclusive.
Pro-choice groups argued that the 20-week ban, in addition to being unconstitutional, would affect women just at the point of learning of a fetal anomaly or determining that the pregnancy could put the mother's life in danger.