House Rejects D.C. 20-Week Abortion Ban; Similar Amendment Filed in Senate

August 1, 2012 — The House on Tuesday failed to approve a bill (HR 3803) that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the District of Columbia, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports. Although the bill garnered a 220-154 majority, it needed a two-thirds majority to pass because it was brought to a vote under a suspension of the rules (Kasperowicz, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/31).

The bill was introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) in January. The legislation, similar to measures enacted in several states, is based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain around 20 weeks of pregnancy. Although the ban would not have applied in cases where abortion is necessary to save the woman from death or "irreversible physical impairment," it would have stood for cases of rape, incest or fetal anomaly (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/30).

The bill also would have imposed new reporting requirements, allowed fines and prison terms for doctors convicted of violating its provisions, and offered avenues for civil action by women's partners and parents.

Political Implications

The vote marked the second time this year that House Republicans have brought up antiabortion legislation under a suspension of the rules "in an apparent attempt to allow debate on the issue, without actually passing a bill," according to "Healthwatch." In May, they used the procedure -- which limits debate and prohibits amendments -- in a vote on another bill (HR 3541) by Franks that would have banned abortion based on the sex of the fetus ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/31).

Tuesday's vote was closely watched by groups on both sides of the abortion-rights debate. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America both announced they will score the vote and inform their members and the public about how lawmakers voted (Siegelbaum, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/30). The National Right to Life Committee also said it will score the results (Ethridge, CQ Today, 7/30).

Ultimately, 17 Democrats joined most Republicans in supporting the bill, while six Republicans voted against it and two voted "present." Both sides used the floor debate to drive home points about their position on abortion rights, "Healthwatch" reports. Franks and the bill's supporters emphasized the claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Democrats criticized Republicans over their repeated efforts to restrict women's reproductive rights and for targeting the District of Columbia. "This is the first time in our history that a standalone bill has come to the floor to deny the residents of the nation's capitol the same constitutional rights as other Americans," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), adding, "We won't stand for it" ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/31).

Some moderate Republicans expressed frustration over the vote. According to Roll Call, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) in a private conversation reportedly asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), "Are you kidding me? How many times are we going to vote on this?"

Franks said he is aware that votes on the measure could be a liability for some lawmakers but said "it will cost more Democrats the election" (Newhauser, Roll Call, 7/31).

Similar Amendment Introduced in Senate

In other news Tuesday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) filed an amendment similar to the Franks bill during debate over cybersecurity legislation in the Senate. The amendment would ban abortion in D.C. after 20 weeks of pregnancy and allow fines or imprisonment for doctors who violate the measure.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), author of the cybersecurity bill, on Tuesday asked colleagues not to file any more non-germane amendments. An amendment to repeal the health care reform law (PL 111-148) also was proposed (Viebeck, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/31).