New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 18, 2013
WASHINGTON » After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.
Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman's right to end a pregnancy. Their efforts will move to the forefront Tuesday when House Republicans plan to bring to the floor a measure that would prohibit the procedure after 22 weeks of pregnancy — the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in either chamber in a decade.
The bill stands no chance of becoming law, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. Republican leaders acknowledge that its purpose is to satisfy vocal elements of their base who have renewed a push for new restrictions on reproductive rights, even if those issues harmed the party's reputation with women in 2012.
But beyond Washington, advocates on both sides of the issue say the chance to limit abortion in the near future is very real. Republican-dominated state legislatures in South Carolina and Wisconsin are weighing bans similar to the one the House will vote on, which would impose the 22-week limit based on the scientifically disputed theory that fetuses at that stage of development can feel pain.
The measures stand a reasonable chance of passing in both states as well as in Texas, where last week Gov. Rick Perry added abortion restrictions to the Legislature's agenda. Conservatives are pushing for a vote by next week.
Already this year, Arkansas and North Dakota have passed even more restrictive bans in attempts to directly challenge Supreme Court precedent.
Much of the movement in recent weeks can be linked to the outcry over the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia physician who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions.
His case, coming on top of successful efforts to curtail reproductive rights in several states over the past three years, has reinvigorated the anti-abortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said.
"These laws are flying through," said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports access to abortions. "The attention has really been at the state level around abortion issues. Now what you also see at the federal level is very disturbing, and it shows that abortion opponents are very emboldened."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the House bill "the most significant legislation on abortion" at the federal level since 2003, when Congress passed a ban on a type of late-term procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.
On the eve of the House vote, the Obama administration released a statement late Monday opposing the bill, saying it "shows contempt for women's health and rights."
Aware of the risks inherent in abortion politics, Republican leaders have moved to insulate themselves from Democrats' criticism that they are opening a new front in the "war on women." Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., will manage the debate on the bill when it reaches the House floor, a role that would customarily go to the sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
And in a last-minute revision, House leaders slipped in a provision that would allow for a limited exception in cases of rape or incest, but only if the woman had reported the crime.
Still, the re-emergence of abortion as a driving issue among the conservative base has left some moderate Republicans baffled.
"I think it's a stupid idea to bring this up," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. "The economy is on everybody's minds. We're seeing stagnant job numbers. Confidence in the institution, in government, is eroding. And now we're going to have a debate on rape and abortion."
Dent said the party risked opening itself up to another "Akin eruption," a reference to Todd Akin, a Missouri congressman who was defeated last year in a Senate race after saying women's bodies could block a pregnancy after "a legitimate rape."
Indeed, Republicans had an unpleasant reminder last week of how perilous the politics of reproductive rights can be when Franks defended his bill's lack of an exception for rape by saying incidents of pregnancy after rape were "very low." This occurred at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, which Democrats noted with some satisfaction contained not a single woman on the Republican side.
But most of the Republican rank-and-file and their leaders in Congress are solidly behind the bill, arguing that voters back home are clamoring to see something done after the Gosnell case.
"We're hearing from a lot of people who are appalled," Blackburn said, pointing to surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of the public opposes legal second-trimester abortions. "They feel like this is an appropriate step in this discussion."
Unlike other major policy questions that Democrats and Republicans are fighting over this year, like same-sex marriage and background checks for gun buyers, Democrats do not find themselves with either overwhelming public opinion on their side or a favorable shift in sentiment.
House Republicans reject the notion that they are ignoring the lessons of 2012 by not focusing on a message of "growth and opportunity," as the party's introspective postelection report recommended.
"While we continue to be focused on that," Speaker John A. Boehner said in defense, "there are other important issues that we have to deal with. And after the Kermit Gosnell case and the publicity that it received, I think the legislation is appropriate."
One thing is certain — the bill is a violation of Supreme Court precedent. The court has ruled that women have a right to an abortion until the fetus could live outside the womb, generally starting around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The bill before the House, called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would ban abortions at 20 weeks after fertilization. In the most common way of measuring pregnancies, that is equal to 22 weeks, because pregnancies are typically dated from the first day of a woman's last menstrual period.
Similar laws that banned abortions at or near 22 weeks have been enacted in 11 states since 2010. In Georgia, Idaho and Arizona, which enacted an 18-week postfertilization ban, courts have blocked them.
These measures are very different from previous attempts to limit abortion because they are based on an argument that is rooted in the belief, held by a minority in the medical community, that fetuses begin to feel pain around 20 weeks. Most scientists, however, believe that the nervous system is not developed enough to register pain until later in pregnancy.
The first law of this kind passed in Nebraska in 2010. And after the Republican wave of victories in elections that year, more states began passing them.
In 2011, 92 laws limiting the procedure went into effect. The previous record had been fewer than 40. Last year there were 43, according to Guttmacher.
The House has taken up abortion regulations in the past few years, but none have been as expansive or restrictive since Congress passed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003.
And there are signs that the anti-abortion push will continue. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent separate queries to all 50 states about abortion practices and the enforcement of current laws.
"We look at these projects somewhat long-term," said Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.