The Senate voted 51 to 46 in favor of a 20-week abortion ban Monday, falling a few votes short of advancing a law that would have had serious repercussions for reproductive rights around the country.
Three Democrats joined 48 Republicans in voting in favor of the bill: Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) all effectively voted to limit patients’ access to abortion after just 20 weeks.
Monday’s procedural vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” marks the third time in six years Congress effectively killed a 20-week abortion ban bill. “The fact that the anti-choice GOP would waste time and taxpayer money on an unconstitutional abortion ban shows that their obsession with controlling women’s bodies and lives knows no limits,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue in a statement. But a lot has changed since Congress last took up the measure in 2015. And how members — particularly moderate Democrats — voted this go-around is especially critical.
The bill — first introduced in the House by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who recently resigned after allegedly asking female staffers to act as surrogates — is based on the dubious science that a fetus begins to feel pain 20 weeks after fertilization (22 weeks’ gestational age) if not earlier. Evidence-based research indicates a fetus is unlikely to feel pain until about 27 weeks, or the third trimester of a pregnancy — and many people who get abortions are trying to avoid fetal pain in the first place.
“Fetal suffering is not something that [pregnant people] should be worried about at this point of pregnancy,” said Dr. Bill Leininger, a California OB/GYN and fellow with the Physicians for Reproductive Health, of the 20-week abortion ban. He said lawmakers’ fixation on 20-week bans is especially concerning because this medically inaccurate information has real life consequences for patients. Seventeen states have already passed similar 20-week bans; federal judges have blocked some.
The bill needed 60 votes to clear filibuster and move forward with actual vote, so the chances of it passing on Monday were slim.
While some lawmakers will use this vote as political capital, anti-abortion groups like Susan B. Anthony List are using the vote to target Democrats who serve in states where Trump won:
— Sarah McCammon NPR (@sarahmccammon) January 29, 2018
“Clearly, we need more votes, but at some point when you start to get closer and senators in vulnerable states start to feel the heat, then it starts to look very optimistic,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, told the Washington Examiner during a press call.
The bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) faces a primary challenge from his own party. His challenger — Marie Newman — has already received critical endorsements from progressive Senate Democrats and pro-choice organizations. A spokesperson for one pro-choice organization told ThinkProgress they didn’t endorse Newman just because Lipinski is anti-choice, but because Newman actually stands up for progressive values.
Three House Democrats voted in favor of the 20-week abortion ban last year — including Lipinski. Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Bob Casey (D-PA) also voted in favor of the bill in 2015. They are the only Senate Democrats still in office who oppose abortion.
While Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have competitive seats in 2018, they effectively voted no on the measure. The newest member, Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), also voted no.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were the only Republicans to vote no. While Collins says she opposes late term abortions, she didn’t agree with the exemption language.
The 20-week ban has passed in the House three times and, as such, amounts to a significant legislative win for anti-abortion activists. The House’s passage of the bill last year may be anti-choice activists’ only federal legislative win in the Trump era, as every attempt to “defund” Planned Parenthood in Congress failed.
Still, Donald Trump’s presidency has ushered a slew of other victories for anti-abortion advocates — from symbolic gestures, like Trump speaking at the largest anti-abortion rally March for Life, to concrete policy decisions, like blocking federal funding for non-governmental groups that provide abortion counseling or referrals in other countries. There have also been an unprecedented number of Trump judges confirmed to serve on the federal bench, which is the last line of defense against anti-abortion policy at the state level.
Pro-choice advocates maintain the public is on their side and point to a recent poll that suggests Democrats shouldn’t run anti-abortion candidates in red states. “It’s a winning political strategy to be a party that supports what our voters support… but also if we’re talking about the base, Democrats’ base is women, it is minorities — it’s the people who these abortion bans impact at a real level,” one pro-choice, grassroots advocate told ThinkProgress. “It doesn’t make sense to say that their rights are negotiable.”
This story has been updated to include a NARAL statement.