In the midst of an unresolved dispute over funding the federal government and insuring protections for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, Senate Republicans plan to vote on a 20 week abortion ban next week, re-opening a debate on the legal medical procedure at a politically charged moment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) moved to vote on anti-choice legislation introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Wednesday, clearing the way for a procedural vote as soon as Monday.
“Now Congress has an opportunity to take a step forward… [and] I’m pleased to have filed cloture on this bill to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain,” McConnell said.
“And I look forward to voting for it early next week,” he added.
The bill would make obtaining an abortion illegal after 20 weeks, with very few exceptions. Abortion providers would also be barred from performing the procedure. Those found in violation of the law could face up to five years in prison, fines, or both.
Legal and reproductive rights organizations have slammed the bill, which would directly violate the Constitution. Many also pointed to the Senate’s timing, which comes amid an unresolved dispute over the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. The government shut down for three days last week after lawmakers failed to agree upon a resolution to the issue, a scenario that could repeat itself.
Following McConnell’s announcement, lawmakers and advocates for reproductive justice slammed GOP lawmakers for prioritizing legislation targeting abortion over funding the government and protecting DACA recipients, also called “Dreamers.”
“This bill is unconstitutional and shameful on its own—the decision to have an abortion is one that should be made by women, not politicians. It’s even more outrageous that the Senate would take up this vote when they should be spending their time finding a solution for the 800,000 Dreamers who have spent months living in fear and anxiety,” said Faiz Shakir, national political director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Every day 122 Dreamers lose status, and could be deported if Congress does not act. The Senate should stop wasting time on unconstitutional abortion bans and get back to real priorities—the urgent work of keeping its promise to DACA-recipients.”
The House voted on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act last October, passing the bill along a 237-189 margin. The bill is based on the premise that fetuses begin to feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation — a widely discredited theory experts have labeled junk science. Abortions after 20 weeks aren’t even very common: according to data from 2009, only around 1.3 percent of all abortions performed in the United States occur after 20 weeks.
But that hasn’t stopped 20 week bans from gaining traction across the country. More than 20 states have enacted legislation barring abortion after that time, including Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Ohio. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act signaled the strategy’s ability to gain traction at a national level, leaving advocates concerned.
“There is nothing about 20 weeks that is special or medically different [when it comes to fetal development],” Sarah Horvath, an MD and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Yahoo. “Abortion is safe both before and after that gestation age. And abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed in this country because it is legal.”
These bans, she said, “end up jeopardizing…health and safety more than doing anything to protect them.”
President Trump has expressed strong support for the legislation.
“I call upon the Senate to pass this important law and send it to my desk for signing,” Trump said while speaking before the anti-choice annual March for Life last week.
The bill itself is almost certain to die in the Senate. A 60-vote majority is required to break any Democratic filibuster, making the legislation all but doomed to fail. But GOP lawmakers have floated the idea of doing away with the filibuster, a move that would dramatically alter the chances of similar legislation. Bills like the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would inevitably face an onslaught of legal backlash if signed into law, but activists worry polarization on the Supreme Court could have severe ramifications for reproductive rights.
While Senate Republicans focus on abortion, Congress is barreling toward a rapidly-approaching deadline. Lawmakers have until February 8 to strike a deal in order to keep the government funded. Without consensus on immigration, Washington will shut down — again.