Undeterred by recent controversy over legislative efforts to restrict abortion access for rape victims, Republicans in Congress are preparing to wade back into the fray this week.
House leaders are readying another vote on a national 20-week abortion ban — this time, with slightly different language related to sexual assault that party leaders say will allow the legislation to more easily advance.
In January, House Republicans suffered a serious political setback when some members of the party withdrew their support for this particular abortion bill, citing concerns over a requirement that would require rape victims to report the crime to authorities in order to qualify for an exception to the ban.
The internal division ultimately forced GOP leaders to cancel a highly-anticipated vote on the measure that was supposed to fall on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Abortion opponents, who were gathered in the nation’s capitol for the annual March for Life, were furious about the last-minute change. Far-right activists said they felt betrayed; some of them even protested outside of Republican lawmakers’ offices.
The momentum in favor of reintroducing the legislation has recently intensified. At the end of last month, a coalition of prominent anti-abortion groups — including Susan B. Anthony List, Concerned Women For America, the Family Research Council, Americans United for Life, and Students for Life of America — released a statement imploring Congress to revive the 20-week ban. The organizations said that re-introducing a vote on the proposed 20-week ban would prove that GOP members of Congress are really “serious about protecting unborn babies and women.”
Now, those advocacy groups are getting their wish. The House will reportedly vote on a new version of the so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” on Wednesday. “Our commitment for the House to consider this important legislation has been steadfast and I am proud of the work of our members to prepare this bill for House consideration,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said in a statement provided to the Weekly Standard confirming the upcoming vote.
The amended version of the bill does not require rape victims to report their assaults to the authorities. That change technically eliminates the sticking point that thwarted the legislation at the beginning of the year. Critics pointed out that, since the vast majority of rape victims never make an official report, it’s insensitive to make their abortion access hinge on that requirement.
But the legislation still imposes some restrictions on victims of sexual assault. As the bill is currently written, rape survivors may only circumvent the ban on post-20-week abortions if they sought counseling or medical care within 48 hours of the procedure. If they visited an abortion clinic for either of those services, it doesn’t count.
Critics point out that this provision is still problematic for several reasons. It appears to closely resemble the mandatory counseling and waiting period requirements that are already popular on the state level; studies have already documented that those laws are rife with medical misinformation and ultimately make it more difficult for women to access abortion services. It also threatens to leave doctors struggling to determine whether they’re legally allowed to continue with an abortion procedure.
On top of that, the new version of the 20-week ban includes other changes doubling down on the “fetal pain” rhetoric in a manner that will alarm proponents of reproductive rights.
Efforts to ban abortions after 20 weeks — which are based on the scientifically dubious theory that fetuses can feel pain after that point — always rely on emphasizing the fetuses’ personhood and construing later abortions as a barbaric procedure. The House’s amended bill is no exception. The legislation now features new provisions specifically designed to emphasize the potential viability of fetuses at this point in pregnancy.
Even in cases when patients fall under the approved exemptions, and are allowed to legally access abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the bill stipulates that the doctors performing the procedure “may do so only in the manner which, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive.” And if the fetus “has the potential to survive outside the womb,” the abortion doctor must call in another physician who’s trained in neonatal resuscitation, who is required to attend the procedure in case the fetus needs to be rushed to the hospital. The individual undergoing the abortion would also be required to sign a consent form acknowledging that their doctors will make an attempt to allow the fetus to be born alive.
Those requirements ultimately seek to complicate questions around viability, a murky medical concept that varies widely for every fetus and every pregnancy. And adding this new language misconstrues the reasons why people have abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the first place.
Later abortion procedures are typically not performed on women who have no regard for their fetuses’ wellbeing and don’t care about whether they could survive outside the womb. In fact, most of these patients are making the difficult decision to terminate a wanted pregnancy after discovering serious fetal health defects that will severely undermine their child’s quality of life. If they believed their fetus had a true chance of survival — one that isn’t brief, painful, and marked by crippling health issues — they wouldn’t be having an abortion at all. Ultimately, this kind of red tape for abortion doctors and their patients will end up restricting parents’ ability to determine the most compassionate end-of-life care for their unborn children.
The 20-week ban has little chance of becoming law, since President Obama regularly issues veto threats for national abortion restrictions. But, if House Republicans unite around the legislation, it might be able to advance further than it did in January. Leading pro-life politicians, including Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Diane Black (R-TN) told the Weekly Standard they’re pleased with the recent cooperation and consensus among pro-life groups and lawmakers on the Hill.