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House Passes Bill That Would Ban Abortions After 20 Weeks

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was chosen by House Republican leaders to manage a bill that would ban many abortions.
J. Scott Applewhite

The House has passed one of the most far-reaching abortion bills in decades. But it's unlikely to ever become law.

By a mostly party-line vote Tuesday of 228-196, lawmakers passed the " Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," which would ban nearly all abortions starting 20 weeks after fertilization.

"At 20 weeks maybe sooner, the baby feels pain," said physician and Rep. John Fleming, R-La., on the House floor. "And so I would just submit to you today Mr. Speaker; this bill is not just about abortion; it's about pain, it's about torture to that young life."

The contention that fetuses can feel pain starting at 20 weeks is hotly disputed. But it's been used as a justification to pass similar bills in multiple states over the past several years.

Bringing the federal bill to the House floor now was meant to capitalize on the publicity surrounding last month's murder convictions of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, according to House Speaker John Boehner.

"After this Kermit Gosnell trial and some of the horrific acts that were going on, a vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill and so do I," Boehner said at his weekly news conference.

Democrats, however, say there's one huge and glaring problem with the bill: It's unconstitutional.

"The bill bans abortions prior to 20 weeks," said Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, ranking member of the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. "Since Roe v. Wade, it has been well-settled law that no bill is constitutional that bans abortions before viability, which is later than that."

Most experts agree that viability begins somewhere around 23 weeks, depending on how you count.

But Democrats use the abortion-ban bill to make a larger point, as well: that Republicans are continuing this year where they left off last year, attacking the rights of women.

"This bill is extreme, an unprecedented reach into women's lives, and a clear indication that the well-being of women in this country is not something that Republicans care to protect," said Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is also the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

And Republicans, perhaps inadvertently, played into Democrats' hands.

During committee consideration of the abortion ban last week, the bill's sponsor, Arizona Republican Trent Franks, tried to fend off an amendment that would have provided an exception for victims of rape or incest.

In arguing against the exception, he said, "You know, the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy is very low."

Franks later said he was trying to say that most women who get pregnant as a result of rape have abortions well before they are six months pregnant. But the PR damage was done.

Republican leaders late last week decided not to let Franks manage his own bill on the floor. Instead, they turned to Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a longtime anti-abortion voice. They also added exceptions to the bill for rape and incest.

But Democrats were outraged at the choice of Blackburn to handle the bill, because she's not even a member of the Judiciary Committee that considered it.

"And if that is not PR, I don't know what is," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., co-chairwoman of the House Pro-Choice Caucus. "And if that is not simply trying to fool you, I don't know what else that is."

On the other hand, Republican leaders couldn't have chosen a woman from the Judiciary Committee, because the Republicans on the panel are all male.

Still, the entire effort was likely all for show. The Senate is not expected to take up the bill. And President Obama issued a veto threat against it on Monday.

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