Conservatives aren’t very happy with Rep. Renee Ellmers this week. Over the course of just a few days, the Republican congresswoman from North Carolina has become an unlikely symbol for Republicans’ brewing divisions over abortion policy.
Ellmers is being accused of betraying her party — several articles published on the right-wing Red State accuse her of being “worse than a Democrat” and “two-faced” — for thwarting a proposed 20-week abortion ban that was scheduled to come up for a vote this week. On Thursday afternoon, anti-abortion activists Jill Stanek and Patrick Mahoney held a protest outside of Ellmers’ office, urging activists to stand against “Congressman Ellmers’ blockage of a bill to protect babies destined for death by abortion.”
The GOP-controlled House was expecting to easily pass the so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” on Thursday. Although President Obama has already issued a veto threat, abortion opponents wanted to hold a largely symbolic vote on the bill on the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But, after Ellmers took her name off the bill amid concerns about the legislation’s narrow exception for rape victims, GOP aides started worrying about the political pitfalls of putting forth an abortion measure that female lawmakers might not support. Party leaders pulled the bill at the last minute, swapping it out for a different piece of anti-choice legislation.
The House still passed the abortion restriction they subbed in, which restricts insurance coverage for the procedure and which the President has also pledged to veto. But the political damage has been done. In headlines across the country, the move is being described as “embarrassing” and a “fiasco.” It’s providing clear evidence that the Republican Party is unsure how to move forward on contentious issues of rape, particularly after callous comments regarding rape victims’ access to abortion became a sticking point in the 2012 elections.
Now, plenty of abortion opponents are upset, specifically blaming Ellmers for undermining their agenda. “We are sad to report to you that Congresswoman Renee Ellmers has betrayed the pro-life community,” the North Carolina Values Coalition wrote on its website. “Her actions this week are both bewildering and traitorous.”
For their protest against the congresswomen, Stanek and Mahoney partnered with Students for Life and gathered a group of about fifty teenagers at the entrance to the Longworth House Office Building after the day’s main March for Life events. The adults there were on message — one man who asked not to be named said that Rep. Ellmers “ran on being pro-life and abandoned the movement” — but the teens weren’t as sure. When asked which lawmaker they were there to meet with, a group of five young people said they didn’t know, but they wanted to demonstrate that Millennials care about life.
“I have no idea,” a teenage boy said in response to a question about which member of Congress he was there to protest. “Like a young woman?” He called over another protester to help clarify, who said that they were paying a visit to all female lawmakers that afternoon.
In practice, however, Renee Ellmers is hardly a supporter of the reproductive rights movement. “I believe in the sanctity of human life and believe that life begins at conception. I am Pro-Life,” she posted on her campaign website in 2010. “I have gained the wisdom of knowing that every life is a precious gift from God and it is not for us to judge its worth, deny its beginning or determine its end.”
A self-declared “product of the Tea Party,” the congresswoman has a long history of voting to curtail access to abortion. She earned a 100 percent rating from the National Right To Life Committee last year. While she’s been in office, she has voted to define life as beginning at conception, to ban Obamacare plans from covering abortion, to defund Planned Parenthood, and to prevent low-income women from using their insurance coverage for abortion. In 2013, she co-sponsored the same “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” that Republicans attempted to recycle for Thursday’s vote.
In light of her record, pro-choice advocates are not exactly ready to embrace Ellmers as one of their own — regardless of the role she’s playing in the emerging rift among conservatives over abortion restrictions and rape exceptions.
“Despite the drama of the last 24 hours, it’s very clear that this entire mutiny has been motivated by optics,” Marcy Stech, the press secretary at EMILY’s List, told ThinkProgress, pointing out that Ellmers doesn’t actually oppose the substance of the proposed abortion ban. “If anything, I think Republican women can be credited to smarter political strategy. But at the end of the day, they still support it and promise to vote on it.”
In fact, the night before the scheduled vote, Ellmers even said she planned on voting for the 20-week abortion ban. “To clear up any misinformation, I will be voting tomorrow to support H.R. 36 – The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protect Act Resources bill. I have and will continue to be a strong defender of the prolife community,” she posted on Facebook.
That didn’t placate pro-life groups, who are still angry that Ellmers was reportedly working behind the scenes to persuade her Republican colleagues to oppose the legislation as it’s currently written. One of the protesters outside Ellmers’ office said that the lead-up to Thursday’s vote was “a major moment where we were winning the argument” and Ellmers ruined it. “The main message is that we’re not going to tolerate people abandoning out values,” he said.
On the other side of the issue, reproductive rights advocates are glad the internal political fights may be helping stall GOP efforts to pass anti-abortion legislation. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement that it’s “encouraging that some politicians are starting to recognize that it is a political vulnerability to attack women’s access to abortion and other health care.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who co-chairs the Pro-Choice Caucus, echoed those sentiments. “What I would like to think is happening over there is that a lot of people are saying, we’ve been after this for 40 years now, and let’s stop and work on things so we can draw more people to our cause,” the congresswoman told ThinkProgress in an interview. “This is driving more people away. I really believe that.”
Slaughter said she believes Thursday’s infighting was such a “major humiliation” for Republicans that she wouldn’t be surprised if the 20-week abortion ban never comes up for a vote at all.
On Thursday morning, Ellmers told reporters that the conflict over the legislation was “unfortunate,” but stood behind her initial critiques regarding the bill. She said that while she supports banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, she still thinks Republicans should tweak the rape exception so that victims of sexual assault are not required to report to law enforcement officials. She acknowledged that the first time she voted for the legislation, she didn’t realize the rape exception was written that way.
Ellmers — who has previously spoken publicly about the need for the GOP to address its “war on women” image by “getting the point across that we care” — said that the GOP-controlled Congress needs to make sure its policies aren’t viewed as “harsh” by women and young people. “When we come off as harsh and judgmental, we stop that conversation and we’ve got to learn to be doing a better job,” she said.