A bill banning late-term abortions in the District failed to garner enough support Tuesday but it provided conservative Republicans an opportunity to air their concerns about the procedures just months before Election Day.
House lawmakers voted 220 to 154 to pass the bill, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure under the suspension of normal rules. A bill banning “sex-selection” abortions failed by a similar margin with similar rules in May.
The bill, authored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), would have prohibited abortions in the District except to protect the life of the mother after 20 weeks of pregnancy, under the theory that fetuses are capable of experiencing pain beyond that point. The medical community is divided on that question.
Just before the vote, Franks said late-term abortions are “the greatest human rights atrocity in the United States today.”
In the District, he said, “abortion is completely legal for any reason up until the moment of birth. Under the Constitution, the Congress and the president clearly are responsible for this abortion-until-birth policy.”
But several Democrats blasted the measure as an unconstitutional restriction on women’s rights and the rights of D.C. residents. Although she could not vote on the bill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) urged her colleagues to defeat the measure.
“The folks behind this bill care nothing about the District of Columbia,” she said. “They have picked on the District to get a phony federal imprimatur on a bill that targets Roe v. Wade.
“Bills based on pain or principle would not target only one city that has no vote on a bill that involves only the residents of that city,” she added. “Women have pulled the cover from a bill with a D.C. label, because they know an attack on their reproductive health when they see it.”
District officials strongly opposed the bill, which they believed would usurp the city’s right to make its own laws. City leaders have clashed with both the Republican-led House and the White House over abortion, particularly since President Obama agreed last year to sign a ban on local-government-funded abortions in the city as part of a broad spending deal.
By placing the abortion bill on Tuesday’s suspension calendar, House Republican leaders set a higher bar for passage, requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. Doing so ensured that the debate over the bill would be relatively quick, with no amendments allowed.
Privately, some House Republicans didn’t want to hold the abortion vote this week, worried that it could distract from their focus on the economy and extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
Regardless of the final result, Tuesday’s vote allowed conservative Republicans to tout their position to anti-abortion voters back home during the August recess, and forced Democrats in swing districts to make a tough decision.
One activist who worked for the bill, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy, said Tuesday’s two-thirds requirement was acceptable because the Senate probably won’t take up the bill. “Even if the suspension vote were to be the only vote this year, it would be a stepping stone,” the activist said.
Nine states have passed “fetal pain” laws that bear similarities to the bill that was before the House. That includes Franks’s home state of Arizona, whose law was upheld by a federal judge Monday after an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleged it was unconstitutional.
The National Right to Life Committee has called Franks’s measure a top legislative priority, and the group informed lawmakers that it would include Tuesday’s vote in its congressional score card.
“A vote against H.R. 3803 will be accurately described as a vote to endorse and preserve the current policy of allowing legal abortion for any reason, until the moment of birth, in our nation’s capital,” the NRLC said.
NARAL Pro-Choice America also planned to score Tuesday’s vote.
“If there were an Olympic event for the most out-of-touch and heartless policy, anti-choice politicians in the House, sadly, would have no competition for the gold medal,” said Nancy Keenan, the group’s president.