Republicans attack Obama ahead of vote on bill to punish sex-selective abortion

The Republican author of a bill to punish sex-selective abortion blasted President Obama on Thursday for his stance in favor of abortion rights.

The White House voiced its opposition to the bill — known as PRENDA — in a statement Wednesday night, calling it intrusive and hazardous for doctors.

The measure's author, Rep. Trent Franks (Ariz.), responded by calling Obama "the abortion president."

"There has never been a more pro-abortion leader in the White House in history of the United States," Franks said a press conference Thursday.

"I am astonished that the leader of the free world would be against a bill that would protect unborn children from being aborted based on their sex," he said.

PRENDA would impose fines or imprisonment on doctors who perform abortions they know are motivated in part by the fetus's gender. It would also require medical professionals to tell law enforcement if they suspect an abortion has been performed for that reason.

Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.), a freshman Republican, said Obama's choice not to support the measure is "mind-boggling."

"It's just unconscionable to me that our president would not be standing up for women as he talks about protecting women and women's issues," she said.

Thursday's looming vote on PRENDA has pitted Republicans and Democrats against one another as the parties battle for the high ground on women's issues.

The White House's comment Wednesday said the bill would "subject doctors to criminal prosecution if they fail to determine the motivations" behind abortions.

"The administration opposes gender discrimination in all forms, but … the government should not intrude in medical decisions or private family matters in this way," deputy press secretary Jamie Smith said in a statement.

Democrats and abortion-rights groups consistently denounce sex-selective abortion but also reject PRENDA, saying it would not only impede the doctor-patient relationship but encourage racial profiling and undermine abortion rights generally.

In response, supporters of Franks's bill have tried to reverse a common Democratic charge — that Republicans are mounting a "war on women" — saying the measure is meant to combat certain cultural preferences for sons that may result in the abortion of female fetuses.

Many House Republicans and groups opposing abortion rights have called sex-selective abortion the "real war on women" this week.

On Thursday, the president of the Susan B. Anthony list, which works to elect "pro-life" candidates, sought to frame Obama as out of step with women on the issue.

"He cannot claim to speak for women or for future generations of their daughters," Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement, citing a poll from her group that found wide support for making sex-selective abortion illegal.

The World Health Organization has called the practice an "increasing cause of concern" in countries such as India and China, and a handful of studies have suggested that it occurs in the United States.

One, described by Franks this week, concluded that data on third births and beyond in U.S. Chinese, Asian Indian and Korean communities "strongly" suggests prenatal sex selection in favor of male children.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) acknowledged Thursday that "we need more studies, obviously."

"Nobody knows because of the secrecy that surrounds many of the abortion clinics in the U.S.," he said. 

Smith added that: "The only way you end discrimination and bias is to legislate it and change the mores and to change the law. The law is a great teacher."

Opponents dismiss this rationale, arguing that the cultural prejudices behind sex-selective abortion are deeply entrenched and need attention Republicans refuse to give them.

Democrats including Rep. Judy Chu (Calif.) have also dismissed PRENDA's supporters for promoting racial stereotypes.

"Indian and Chinese immigrants come from all over the world, from countries with many different cultural practices," Chu, who is of Chinese descent, wrote in an op-ed published in February.

"Stereotyping immigrants will only cause providers to avoid taking minorities as patients, because of the possibility of criminal liability in a decision on reproductive choice," she wrote.

Franks responded to the criticism Thursday saying that "women who are coerced in these situations will find this [bill] to be a lifesaver" since it creates new remedies for those who are forced or threatened with force to have abortions based on the sex of the fetus.

The bill has come to the House floor under suspension of the rules, which means two-thirds of the chamber will have to vote in favor for it to pass. It is expected to fail due to Democratic opposition.

Franks hinted that the measure could come back up in the future under normal order, but chose not to comment when asked directly about that possibility.

"Sometimes the first round of the fight doesn't mean the fight is over," he said.

Suspension of the rules is normally reserved for non-controversial bills.

In this case, it circumvented a House GOP rule stating that no bill will be considered under suspension if it is opposed by more than one-third of the committee that reported it.

Thirteen of 33 House Judiciary Committee members opposed PRENDA on Feb. 16, records show.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this week that he isn't certain why GOP leaders put the bill on the suspension calendar, but he also wasn't shy about offering a theory that Republicans simply want to force Democrats to vote against it twice.

"I'm not sure why they're putting in on a suspension unless they simply want two cracks at the apple – two bites at the apple," he said.

"If that's what they're doing, I think that's just a political effort, not a substantive effort. If it was a substantive effort it would have been given some additional airing."

"But you'd have to ask them why they're putting it on a suspension first," Hoyer said.

A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Hill that there is "no conspiracy theory" in why the office made its choice to bring the bill up under suspension.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) commented on the decision, saying the issue is "important" to Americans.

"This type of sex selection most Americans find pretty repulsive, and our members feel strongly about it. That's why it is being brought to the floor," he said.

Franks acknowledged that the two-thirds threshold makes passage an "ambitious goal," but said the suspension means the "world will know where [members] really stand on sex-selective abortion" because it will permit no amendments or motions to recommit.

Hoyer appeared to anticipate this comment Wednesday when he argued that the bill is designed to make Democratic opponents appear like they support abortions for gender selection – something he rejected outright.

"This has come up because I think somebody decided politically it was a difficult place to put people in," he said.

"[But] any interpretation that voting against this bill is therefore for abortions for the purposes of selecting gender would be wrong – period."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she would oppose the bill and that votes against it would not hurt Democrats.