For a day, at least, the roles in the "war on women" were reversed.
Republicans, for once, backed Democrats into a politically tenuous corner over a hot-button social issue – abortion – while Democrats cried foul, arguing that legislation before the US House was more political ploy than policy change.
The House rejected a measure Thursday that would explicitly ban abortions undertaken on the basis of the fetus's gender, by a vote of 168 against to 246 in favor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, did not carry because it was subject to a legislative rule that required approval of 60 percent of House members to pass.
Democrats, who previously knocked Republicans for their stances on the Violence Against Women Act and who are pushing legislation requiring equal pay for men and women, called the vote a political charade.
Democrats also took a page out of House Speaker John Boehner's book by redirecting discussion of a social issue to the economy.
"We should be talking about jobs, but instead we're spending time on this divisive issue," said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D) of Oregon, on the House floor Thursday.
But conservative groups sensed they had found a way to cast their frequent tormentors into their own choppy political waters with the vote.
"It is to be hoped that even many Members who deem themselves 'pro-choice' will recoil at the notion that 'freedom of choice' must include even the choice to abort a little unborn girl, merely because she is a girl," wrote Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Council (NRLC), in a letter to House members that urged passage of the bill. "Members who recently have embraced contrived political rhetoric asserting they are resisting a 'war on women' must reflect on whether they wish to be recorded as being defenders of the escalating war on baby girls."
While the bill fell short, its defenders and critics disagreed sharply about what exactly the measure would have accomplished. The bill would make it illegal to perform an abortion "knowing that such abortion is sought based on the sex or gender of the child." However, the legislation tilted culpability toward doctors, noting that "[a] woman upon whom a sex-selection abortion is performed may not be prosecuted or held civilly liable for any violation."
"[T]he end result of this legislation would be to subject doctors to criminal prosecution if they fail to determine the motivations behind a very personal and private decision," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday.
The NRLC, however, pointed to language in the bill that absolved health-care providers from having "an affirmative duty to inquire as to the motivation for the abortion, absent the healthcare provider having knowledge or information that the abortion is being sought based on the sex or gender of the child.”
At the issue's core is this question: Are many sex-selection abortions performed in the United States?
The bill's proponents pointed to a study showing that analysis of the third child born to Chinese, Indian, and Korean parents in the United States "strongly suggest[s]" prenatal sex selection. However, a review of the legislation by the Guttmacher Institute, which backs abortion rights, argues that such practices are not widespread in the the United States overall and that the studies offered by Representative Franks and allied lawmakers cannot prove that abortions for the purpose of sex-selection are a significant problem even in particular immigrant communities.
"What is conclusively known," wrote Guttmacher's Sneha Barot, "is that the U.S. sex ratio at birth in 2005 stood at 105 boys to 100 girls, squarely within biologically normal parameters."