Next week, on the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion across the country, House Republicans will mark the occasion by voting on — and, in all likelihood, advancing — a national abortion ban.
After making significant gains in the 2014 midterm elections, GOP lawmakers have wasted no time pursuing the anti-abortion agenda that leaders of the party pledged to prioritize this year. Last week, as soon as the 114th Congress kicked off its new term, Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) immediately introduced a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks. Now, the House has scheduled its first vote on it.
The proposed policy represents a direct attack to Roe, which legalized abortion until the point of viability. That scientific measure varies for every pregnancy, but typically occurs sometime around 24 weeks. A 20-week ban would essentially shave off multiple weeks from the legal window to access abortion services.
Franks and Blackburn have been pushing their Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which is based on the scientifically inaccurate assertion that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy, for several years by now. The House passed some version of the legislation in both 2014 and 2013.
Those previous efforts have been stalled by Democrats in the Senate — but, now that both chambers of Congress are GOP-controlled, Republican leaders have been promising to send the 20-week ban straight to President Obama’s desk. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has indicated that he plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate sometime in the next few weeks.
Republicans believe they’ve found a winning strategy in 20-week abortion bans, which tend to play well with voters because they can be construed as moderate. As Politico reported this week, national leadership as well as potential GOP presidential candidates are lining up to support the so-called “fetal pain” legislation.
“We believe we’re doing the right thing. And I think that the politics of it, in my view, are changing around the country, too,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), told Politico. “If you define these issues the right way, I think you get to a point where you really do have good, strong public support.”
Indeed, the momentum behind 20-week bans has always relied on carefully framing the issue in a way that best capitalizes on emotional outrage. The anti-choice community frequently cites the fact that public support for abortion services drops off later in pregnancy to make the case that permitting later abortions is starkly opposed to Americans’ values. It’s easier to construe all abortions as extreme, or even barbaric, if opponents are focusing on those cases.
A closer examination of the evidence, however, reveals that the push for 20-week bans is more about political optics than it is about accomplishing the GOP’s stated goal of lowering the abortion rate. Later abortions are already incredibly rare, making up just about 1.5 percent of all abortions performed nationwide. And patients aren’t exactly having this procedure on a whim. Abortions after 20 weeks typically occur only in very desperate situations — like when women discover serious fetal health issues that weren’t evident earlier in their pregnancy, or when low-income women are forced to delay abortion as they’re working to save up the money for it.
It’s not hard to see the very real consequences of fetal pain measures. As this policy has been gaining momentum on the state level — nine states currently ban abortions after this point — the women affected by this particular abortion restriction have started speaking out. Particularly when families are trying to determine the most compassionate end-of-life care for children that have no hope of surviving outside the womb, being denied the option to end the pregnancy on their own terms can be painful.
For instance, one woman who lives in Nebraska, which was the first state to pass a fetal pain ban back in 2010, penned an op-ed about being forced to carry a nonviable fetus to term. After her pregnancy went terribly wrong at 22 weeks, when she was past the legal limit for a termination, she waited 10 difficult days before she naturally went into labor. Then, she delivered a daughter who immediately died. “Prevent women from living my tragedy,” she implored lawmakers in that piece.
According to polling conducted by Planned Parenthood, when voters learn more about the difficult circumstances that may lead a woman to have a later abortion procedure, they oppose 20-week bans. But that emotional context is more nuanced, and doesn’t lend itself as well to talking points as Republicans’ arguments about protecting fetuses from pain. That’s why abortion opponents are prepared to forge ahead this month.
January 22, the anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision about abortion, is always somewhat of a rallying point for conservatives.
It’s the same day that thousands of pro-life activists descend on the National Mall for the annual March for Life. And last year, it was the day that the Republican National Committee introduced a resolution urging GOP politicians to take a firmer stance against abortion — specifically suggesting that conservative lawmakers should throw their support behind efforts like later abortion bans. This year, members of Congress will get a chance to follow through.