House rejects bill limiting DC abortions

The House voted down a bill Tuesday night that would have criminalized abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on research showing that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks.

The bill won a 220-154 majority of House members, but Republicans chose to bring up the bill under a suspension of House rules, which required a two-thirds vote for passage.

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Predictably, the two-thirds vote requirement doomed the bill from the start. Seventeen Democrats voted with Republicans, but the lack of more substantial support from Democrats meant that the debate and vote were more about letting both parties make political points about abortion that might play in the election, and much less about actually legislating.

The 17 Democrats were also undercut by six Republicans who voted against the measure, and two Republicans who voted "present."

Nonetheless, Republicans used the 40-minute debate to argue that despite the decades-old Supreme Court ruling allowing abortions, Congress should act to spare unborn babies from the pain associated with that procedure.

"The gruesome late-term abortion of unborn children who can feel pain is the greatest atrocity in the United States today," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, H.R. 3803.

"Medical science regarding the development of unborn babies and their capacities at various stages of growth has advanced dramatically, and incontrovertibly, it demonstrates that unborn children clearly do experience pain," he said. "If we cannot find the will and the courage to protect human babies from being tortured, then what claim on human compassion remains to us?"

Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) brought a chart to the House floor during debate that detailed how doctors abort fetuses in some late term abortions, by pulling apart the fetus with special tools.

"There's a special tool to squeeze that little baby's head and crush that head and then pull it out," King said. "Who of us could watch such a procedure? Who of us could conduct such a procedure?"

But Democrats ripped into the bill during floor debate, including by criticizing the bill for only applying to the District of Columbia. Republicans argued that the Constitution gives Congress the right to set these sorts of policies for the District, but many Democrats accused the GOP of using the District as a guinea pig.

"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-DC). "We won't stand for it."

Others argued that while Congress can set policy for the District, that doesn't mean it has the right to set unconstitutional policy.

"We have jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, but we do not have the prerogative to produce unconstitutional programs for them," House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) agreed that the bill is "flagrantly unconstitutional" because the Supreme Court's Roe v Wade ruling gives all Americans the right to abortion.

"The constitutional rule is clear: the government may not tell a women whether or not she may have an abortion before fetal viability," Nadler said. "This bill prohibits abortions much earlier."

Other Democrats argued that the bill is the latest attempt by Republicans to undermine the right to abortion under Roe v Wade.

"This is nothing more than a direct challenge to Roe v Wade and a vehicle for yet another ideological attack against women's reproductive rights," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said. "It's a direct threat to the health of every woman living in the District of Columbia."

Had it passed, the bill would have criminalized abortions after 20 weeks, and would have allowed for fines and prison terms of up to two years for doctors who violate this rule. It would also have required new reporting requirements and civil remedies for partners and parents of women who have abortions, and would not have allowed for exemptions related to rape or incest, or for pregnancies that threaten women's health.

Democrats and other opponents of the bill also argued that despite their opposition, it would have little effect, as most abortions occur in the District between 6 and 10 weeks.

The vote was the second this year in which Republicans called up an abortion bill under suspension of the rules in an apparent attempt to allow debate on the issue, without actually passing a bill. In May, the House voted down a bill, also from Rep. Franks, that would have prevented abortions based on the sex of the fetus.

— Elise Viebeck contributed.