WASHINGTON – Efforts to convince the Senate to adopt additional restrictions on abortions, a step that has recently been taken by several states as well as the House of Representatives, look to be going nowhere despite growing pressure from Republican lawmakers.
An aide in the office of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who controls the flow of legislation to the floor, said the upper chamber won’t consider House-passed legislation that prohibits a woman from undergoing the procedure more than 20 weeks after conception.
Even if Reid were to consider the measure, it’s unlikely that any Senate committee of jurisdiction, all chaired by Democrats, would pass the measure on to the full chamber. President Obama already has indicated he would issue a veto if the bill reaches his desk.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), an abortion rights supporter, said the bill “isn’t going anywhere” but acknowledged that anti-abortion Republicans will look for a way to get it on the agenda.
“Republicans have shown they’ll go to just about any length to limit access to care,” Murray said. “They’ve put politics between women and their health care. They’ve put employers between women and their health care. They’ve even threatened to shut down the government over this very issue. They’ve shown that this isn’t about what’s best for women, men, and their family planning decisions. Instead it’s about their political calculations. It’s about appeasing the far right. And it’s about their continued efforts to do whatever it takes to push their extreme agenda.”
There has been a flurry of activity in several state legislatures seeking to adopt laws working against Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v Casey, a 1992 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which held that a woman has a right to an abortion until the fetus attains “viability,” a status that is generally reached at or about 28 weeks under the ruling.
The Texas legislature is considering a measure in special session that would permit the state to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks. An earlier attempt to move the line was thwarted by a filibuster. North Carolina is likewise engaged in debate over a 20-week limit.
If successful, Texas and North Carolina will be the tenth and eleventh states to impose a 20-week limit since 2010, joining a list that includes Nebraska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. North Dakota prohibits the procedure as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, or as early as six weeks. Arkansas has a 12-week limit. Idaho’s law was struck down by a federal judge who called it unconstitutional.
The issue of reduced time frames has not been addressed by the Supreme Court. It’s likely the high court eventually will be called on to render an opinion.
Establishing a 20-week limit carries some popular support but the split between supporters and opponents is fairly narrow according to recent polling. A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International on June 20-23 showed that 48 percent of those questioned support the outlawing of abortions after 20 weeks except in cases of rape or incest while 44 percent opposed.
On abortion generally, a Gallup Poll conducted May 2-7 found that 26 percent of those questioned maintained that abortion should always be legal, 52 percent said it should be legal sometimes and 20 percent said it should always be illegal.
The abortion question dropped into the Senate’s lap on June 18 when the House voted 228-196 to ban the procedure after 20 weeks. The tally broke down mostly along partisan lines – six Democrats supported the measure while six Republicans voted against it. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the prime sponsor, said the 20-week limit was set because it represents the stage where a fetus can feel pain – a claim disputed by some medical experts.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the legislation, titled the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, “the most significant pro-life legislation to come before Congress since enactment of the ban on partial-birth abortions. We have a moral obligation to defend the defenseless, and we will continue to fight to ensure our nation’s laws respect the sanctity of unborn human life.”
The House action came just a few weeks after Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider, was convicted in a Pennsylvania court on three counts of murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter related to newborns he killed after they were born alive during attempted abortions. Boehner acknowledged House Republicans used the incident as an impetus.
“Listen, jobs continues to be our No. 1 concern,” he said. “And while we continue to be focused on it, there are other important issues that we have to deal with. And after the Kermit Gosnell case and the publicity that it received, I think the legislation is appropriate.”
Now anti-abortion activists are trying to convince Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), fresh off of his successful effort on behalf of immigration reform legislation, to spearhead the 20-week limit legislation in the upper chamber. The Weekly Standard reported last week that Rubio agreed to serve as lead sponsor.
Rubio hasn’t made public his intentions but he is a longtime abortion foe. Last March, during a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, he noted that “we believe that life–all human life–is worthy of protection at every stage of its development” and that “life begins at conception.”
While limiting abortions is a key issue with social conservatives, it has carried some political peril in recent campaigns. In 2012, former Missouri congressman Todd Akin, an anti-abortion Republican, was heavily favored to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) until he suggested in a television interview that female victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant. The comment came in response to a question of whether rape victims should have access to abortion.
In the same year, former Indiana state official Richard Mourdock was favored to succeed the man he defeated in the Republican primary, former Sen. Richard Lugar, until he expressed his opposition to abortion in instances where the pregnancy occurred as the result of rape by saying “that it is something God intended to happen.” Mourdock lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Regardless, if Rubio demurs, several other conservative lawmakers will likely step forward. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is already involved in the issue, having sent a letter to the Texas Senate Committee on Health and Human Services expressing his support for the Lone Star State’s 20-week limit proposal. He also joined with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in offering a Senate resolution seeking a review of public policies on what they consider illegal abortion practices.
“Our opponents seem to advocate little to no restrictions on abortion,” Cruz said. “In the past, such advocates claimed abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ Today, their position can fairly be interpreted as ‘anytime, on-demand, and everywhere.’ This extreme embrace of unlimited late-term abortion is indefensible.”
The nation, Cruz said, “was founded on the principle that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with ‘certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ America’s founders knew that life comes first. Without life, there is no liberty; without life, there is no pursuit of happiness.”
Murray dismissed this and asserted that the legislation establishes that “the attacks on women’s health care have not stopped and will not stop.”
“Through economic peril, budget crisis, and record unemployment – the attacks on women’s health have remained constant,” she said. “On Capitol Hill, in state houses across America, and in courtrooms at all levels – the fight against women making their own decisions about their health rages on…But as we’ve seen with this latest effort — the deck is stacked against them because the constitution isn’t going anywhere.”