Poking at a familiar hornet’s nest on Tuesday, House Republicans passed legislation to ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The final vote was 228-196; six Democrats and six Republicans crossed party lines.
The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act carves out exemptions to protect the life of the mother, and for cases of rape and incest as long as the crimes have been reported. It won’t go any further because Democrats control the Senate and White House. But it is invigorating both sides of a culture war that has deeply divided the country for generations.
While Republicans stand to gain by motivating social conservatives to head to the polls, they stand to lose with women voters, who already favor Democrats. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on Tuesday brushed off the idea that the bill would harm his party’s standing with women.
“No,” he told reporters. “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.” Boehner was referring to the conviction of a Pennsylvania abortion doctor for murdering live-born babies.
Democrats sounded all the familiar pro-choice refrains about the GOP’s anti-abortion crusade.
“The Republican majority is once again trying attacking a woman’s constitutionally-protected right to choose,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). “This Republican war on women has been a top priority for the Majority for decades, and it continues today.”
Republican leaders sidelined the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), after he attracted attention with errant comments about rape during the committee markup. Instead they tasked Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) with managing floor debate on the legislation.
The gravity of the issue gave way to one of the more absurd moments during debate, when Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) defended the bill by suggesting that fetuses masturbate.
“Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful,” he said. “They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to think that they could feel pain?”
The Supreme Court has said abortions may not be banned until after 24 weeks of pregnancy. But proponents of the GOP bill argue that fetuses can feel pain before that, an argument for which the science is thus far inconclusive.