Congress Rejected A 20-Week Abortion Ban, But These States Didn’t

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Juan Antonio Labreche

An abortion opponent in favor of a proposed 20-week ban chalks a message that reads "life is precious" in New Mexico

On Thursday, following an internal split among GOP lawmakers, reproductive rights proponents cheered when the House dropped a scheduled vote on a proposed 20-week abortion ban. Instead of voting on the so-called “fetal pain” measure, the House swapped it out for a different abortion restriction that undermines insurance coverage for the procedure.

“I never thought I would see the day that the Tea Party-led House of Representatives would wake up to the fact that their priorities — outright abortion bans — are way out of touch with the American people,” Ilyse Houge, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, wrote in an email to supporters.

But even though a national 20-week ban didn’t end up coming up for a vote, which represented a political set-back for the pro-life activists visiting the nation’s capital for the annual March for Life, the policy is still steadily advancing.

The same day that House Republicans backtracked from their fetal pain bill, lawmakers in Virginia and South Carolina both pushed forward with state-level 20-week abortion bans. And that’s on top of a proposed 20-week ban that was recently filed in West Virginia — where abortion opponents are feeling optimistic about the legislation now that Republicans have enough seats to override Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D), who vetoed the measure in 2014.

In fact, the legislation that was just introduced in Virginia is even more stringent than the measure that divided U.S. Congress. It doesn’t include any type of exception for rape victims. The recent controversy among national lawmakers hinged on how broadly the rape exception should be written, and whether victims of sexual assault need to have reported the crime to the police in order to have access to a later abortion.

“It’s simply outrageous that on the same day Congressional Republicans abandoned their radical abortion ban proposal for being too extreme, Virginia Republicans are pursuing an even more dangerous version,” Anna Scholl, the executive director of ProgressVA, told ThinkProgress via email.

And it’s ultimately a reminder that the real battle for abortion access is unfolding at the state level. While national lawmakers can help set the narrative — and lend political credibility to the pro-life cause by holding votes in the House and Senate — it’s the policies enacted in the states that have more of a direct impact on Americans’ ability to exercise their reproductive rights.

Fetal pain measures, which are based on the scientifically disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy, have been very successful on the state level. Abortion opponents have honed in on restricting later abortions because it’s an area where their messaging — which relies on portraying abortion as a gruesome and painful procedure — has an upper hand. Later abortion bans became particularly prevalent in 2013, when ten states moved to enact 20-week bans. Altogether, they’re currently on the books in 14 different states.

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

That makes it easy to see what type of impact this restriction has on women and doctors. Abortion procedures after 20 weeks of pregnancy are rare, and the women who need them are typically in desperate situations. Often, it’s because they have discovered fatal fetal abnormalities late into a wanted pregnancy. 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 example, one woman who lives in Nebraska — the first state to pass a 20-week abortion ban back in 2010 — recently wrote 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.

Research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute has also found that young women and low-income women — who may be forced to delay having an abortion while they work to scrape together the money to pay for it — are disproportionately harmed by existing 20-week abortion bans.

Nonetheless, abortion opponents across the country are prepared to forge ahead with their plans to ban later abortion, a tactic that’s been in the works for decades and that’s specifically designed to provoke a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade. It’s poised to become an election issue, too: Eight potential GOP presidential candidates have endorsed the national version of the 20-week ban.