House GOP passes major antiabortion bill. Why Democrats are pleased.

House Republicans passed legislation Tuesday that would ban abortions after 20 weeks' pregnancy. The party's social conservative base is happy, but Democrats see a political boon. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday. He is the author of a bill that would change US abortion law to ban almost all abortions after a fetus reaches the age of 20 weeks.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the most significant antiabortion legislation in 10 years: the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill, which passed 228 to 196 on a mostly party-line vote, goes directly against the holding of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Under Roe, states may not ban abortion previability – roughly 24 weeks’ gestational age.   

But the legislation is also largely symbolic. The Democratic-controlled Senate will not take it up, and so it’s going nowhere. Still, for both parties, the bill serves a political purpose.

For Republicans, it’s “a sop to the base,” particularly those members from red states that are adopting strict antiabortion legislation, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

On the flip side, for Democrats, the legislation is a boon. “At the national level, the abortion issue has not worked for the Republican Party, particularly among women voters,” says Mr. Jillson.

The bill’s author, Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, gave the Democrats a bonus gift last week when he said that the rate of pregnancies resulting from rape is “very low.” He later corrected himself, but also added an exception to the bill for cases of rape and incest, albeit a limited one.

The uproar over Congressman Franks’s comment was reminiscent of other Republican gaffes over rape in last year’s elections. Former Rep. Todd Akin’s Senate bid in Missouri tanked when he asserted that women’s bodies can resist pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” And in Indiana, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock also saw his political fortunes collapse when he said that pregnancy from rape is “something God intended.”

But such political windfalls provide supporters of abortion rights cold comfort, when they consider what’s happening in the states. For 12 years, a wave of state-level activism has eroded abortion rights – a movement that picked up steam in 2011, after the new tea party movement began seating members in state legislatures.

The high-water mark came in 2011, with 92 abortion restrictions enacted by state legislatures. In 2012, the number was 43, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization on reproductive issues.

In 2000, Guttmacher labeled 13 states “hostile” to abortion. By 2011, half the states were deemed hostile.

And this year, a number of states – including North Dakota, Arkansas, and Alabama – have enacted legislation that would effectively ban abortion. The laws have either been temporarily blocked from taking effect pending legal rulings or are expected to be.

Republicans have also been highlighting the recent case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who was recently found guilty of murdering infants born alive in late-term abortions. Abortion-rights advocates have been put on the defensive over Dr. Gosnell’s practices, saying that the regulations governing clinics weren’t enforced.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio invoked the Gosnell case Tuesday when he defended the 20-week abortion ban he was bringing to the House floor.

“Listen, after this Kermit Gosnell trial and some of the horrific acts that were going on, the vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill and so do I,” Speaker Boehner told reporters, according to the Huffington Post.

He predicted that the bill would pass with a broad, bipartisan majority, despite the fact that it cleared the House Judiciary Committee with no Democratic votes. Boehner also predicted that the bill would not hurt the Republicans’ image with women voters.

But not every House Republican agrees.

“I’ll be very frank: I discouraged our leadership from bringing this to a vote on the floor,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania told CQ Roll Call last week. “Clearly the economy is on everyone’s minds, we’re seeing very stagnant job numbers, confidence in the institution of government is eroding, and now we’re going to have a debate on rape and abortion.”

“The stupidity is simply staggering,” Congressman Dent said.

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