‘This Dangerous Bill’: House Passes 20-Week Abortion Ban

After Trent Franks flubbed his lines, Marsha Blackburn was brought in to manage passage of the bill, which was designed as a challenge to Roe. The floor debate included one Republican's interpretation of a fetus' hand movements as "Be patient; I’ll be out soon."

After Trent Franks flubbed his lines, Marsha Blackburn was brought in to manage passage of a bill drawn by the National Right to Life Committee as a challenge to Roe v. Wade. C-Span screenshot

See all our coverage of HR 1797 here.

After a limited debate on the adoption of HR 1797, a bill that would ban abortions in all 50 states after 20 weeks post-fertilization, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to pass  bill on Tuesday, despite the fact that it has no chance of getting through the Senate. The bill passed on a largely party-line vote, 228-196.

Drawn as a challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, the Republicans’ 20-week ban contradicts the court’s ruling, which allows abortion up until the point of fetal viability, or roughly 24 weeks.

The bill contains no exception for protecting the health of the woman who seeks an abortion, and its rape and incest exceptions—belatedly added after Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the bill’s sponsor, said that the incidence of pregnancy from rape was low—are framed in ways that the bill’s opponents find punitive to the victims, requiring them to report their assaults to law enforcement authorities, even in situations that put their own lives at risk.

“The majority’s requirement that a victim of rape or incest report the crime to authorities before receiving an abortion effectively prevents many victims from exercising their right to choose,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the Rules Committee’s ranking member, in her opening statement on the House floor Tuesday.

The bill lacks an exception for fetal anomalies, for which test results often are not available until right at or after the 20-week deadline in the bill; as a result, women would be forced to carry such pregnancies to term. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) spoke of a constituent who learned at 21 weeks that the brain of her fetus was developing outside of its cranium, making it completely non-viable.

The deceptively titled “Pain-Capable Infant Protection Act” draws its 20-week limitation from one disputed study and is based on a model bill crafted by the National Right to Life Committee. The Republicans appointed Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to manage the bill on the floor for them, an apparent effort to improve the optics of the floor debate after Franks’ rape comments.

The 20-week abortion ban was initially offered as a measure that would have applied only to the District of Columbia, over which the Congress has a broad measure control, but after the conviction of Kermit Gosnell—who ran an illegal abortion clinic in Philadelphia where poor, desperate women were subjected to horrible conditions and procedures—right-wing leaders saw an opportunity to capitalize on the public’s justifiable revulsion by painting the pro-choice movement with Gosnell’s face. So they redrafted Franks’ bill to apply to all 50 states, and set about selling it as the answer to Gosnell’s crimes.

Never mind that the crimes of which Gosnell was convicted involved abortions that were conducted beyond existing legal limits, or that a total ban on abortion—which is what anti-choice legislators say they ultimately want—would almost certainly result in a proliferation of illegal clinics such as Gosnell’s.

But the Gosnell trial was just too good a public relations opportunity to pass up, former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), now vice president of government affairs at the ironically-named, anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, told a gathering of right-wing activists in Washington, D.C., last week. “This is a time for the pro-life movement like we have not had in decades,” she said. “We must seize the moment.”

And so it was that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) brought a visual aid to the floor debate on the bill. Standing before a poster-sized photograph of a pregnant woman’s large belly—so large that it appeared to be taken in the eighth month of pregnancy—Bachmann somberly said, “It not only protects the unborn; it protects the mom against the lethal practices of abortionists like Gosnell.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) brought her own visual aid: a giant photograph of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee who had voted to bring the bill to the floor. They are all men.

“Once again we need to ask ourselves,” Maloney said, “where were the women when the Judiciary Committee produced this outrageous assault on women’s health, and women’s reproductive rights?”

A number of Democrats who debated the bill—including Lofgren, who served as the Democrats’ floor manager—tweaked the Republicans for having felt the need to take the unusual step of choosing a member who is not on the committee that passed the bill (in this case, the Judiciary Committee) to manage it on the floor, which is usually the job of the member who sponsored the measure.

But after Franks’ rape comments, which recalled the disastrous remarks of 2012 senatorial candidate Todd Akin (R-MO), party leaders felt the need to present women as advocates of the bill. There was just one little problem with that: the House leadership never saw fit to appoint a woman to the prestigious Judiciary Committee. So Blackburn was drafted to manage the bill on the House floor, a move applauded by Musgrave on June 14 from the stage of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, convened in Washington, D.C., by Ralph Reed, a political strategist and former executive director of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s now-defunct Christian Coalition.

When it came time to debate the bill on the floor on Tuesday, nearly all the Republican members who rose to support it were women—women whom many members of the press corps had never heard of.

On Monday, in a Rules Committee meeting that yielded memorable comments by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) regarding fetal masturbation, members voted along party lines to bring up the 20-week abortion ban for a vote by the full House with no opportunity for representatives to add amendments of any kind on the floor, and with limited debate.

The absurdity didn’t begin and end with Burgess; during the floor debate on the rule for the bill, Rep. James Fleming (R-LA) reported seeing the sonogram of the fetus that will become his granddaughter “holding up two fingers,” which Fleming interpreted as the fetus’ way of signaling, “Be patient; I’ll be out soon.”

The 20-week abortion ban has next to no chance of becoming law in the current session of Congress: it doesn’t stand a chance in the Senate, and the president promised a veto if by some freak accident it should get through the upper chamber. But that’s cold comfort to women’s rights advocates, who know that the right wing plays a long game. Speaking to Slate’s David Weigel, Franks explained the strategy in terms of the right’s framing of a proposed ban on a particular abortion procedure they refer to as “partial-birth abortion”—a ban it ultimately won.

“If you harken back to the partial-birth abortion bill,” Franks told Weigel, “oh, everybody said: ‘It’s not constitutional! It can’t pass! It can’t go anywhere.’ It took time to do it, and it even had to survive a presidential veto, but it eventually passed.”

When she stood to speak during the floor debate, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), sounded almost exasperated. “Just another day in the Republican Congress, more extremism, more dead-end bills, and less progress on the real challenges facing all Americans,” she said.

She urged the House to reject “this dangerous bill,” which will no doubt be reintroduced in the next session of Congress.