Abortion wars flare up in Congress
Democrats are trying to gain the upper hand in the abortion debate months before an election where President Trump is expected to paint the party as being extreme on the issue.
House Democrats are pushing legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade, while Senate Republicans are gearing up for a vote on a measure that would ban the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Democrats in the House also expect to vote on a bill that would remove barriers to ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which opponents argue would make it easier to protect access to abortions.
While none of the measures will pass in a divided Congress, the battles highlight how both sides are trying to get ahead of an issue that will play a role in the race for the White House and control of Congress.
Democrats argue that some of the abortion wars at the state level are now percolating up to Washington.
“They are continuing with the trend that we see in Alabama and Georgia and Missouri in terms of striking down women’s right to choose,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), referring to abortion bans passed in conservative states.
“And yet the majority of Americans want to protect the right for Americans to choose. So we are following what the wishes of Americans are and that is to be able to uphold this very fundamental right,” she added.
A Gallup poll last year found that 25 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all cases, 53 percent said it should be permitted in some cases and 21 percent said it should be illegal at all times.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on Wednesday held a hearing on a bill authored by Chu that would codify Roe v. Wade, which established a woman’s right to an abortion and prohibited states from passing pre-viability bans on the procedure.
Democrats and other supporters argue the bill is needed to guard against the Supreme Court potentially overturning or weakening the landmark 1973 decision and letting states set their own abortion laws.
“If indeed the Supreme Court strikes down Roe vs. Wade we definitely need this bill to be in place,” Chu said.
But Republicans argue Chu’s measure would eliminate laws that are meant to benefit women seeking abortions.
“Those are all things I think are reasonable, particularly in many states, the 24-hour waiting period,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), adding that when he was an attorney he would advise clients to go home and “sleep on it” before making big decisions.
Democrats and abortion-rights advocates argue such restrictions disproportionately impact poor women and women of color.
It’s not clear if Chu’s bill will get a committee vote, but an Energy and Commerce spokesperson noted it has the support of every Democratic member of the committee.
Meanwhile, a bill offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would lift the ban on federal funding for abortions has the support of 180 Democrats in the House.
A Democratic aide said Lee is focused on getting more support from the caucus, with the goal of reaching 200 co-sponsors, but it’s too early to say if it will get a vote on the floor. Legislation requires at least 218 votes to pass the House.
Democrats also plan to vote on a resolution Thursday that would remove the 1982 deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would ban discrimination based on sex.
This year, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA, reaching the required three-fourths threshold for amending the constitution, but missing the initial deadline by 38 years.
Democrats argue that ratifying the ERA would enshrine women’s rights in the Constitution.
“Our message here today is quite simple: we want in. We want in the Constitution of the United States of America,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), sponsor of the resolution. “There can be no expiration date on equality.”
Republicans and anti-abortion advocates argue that ratifying the ERA is really about making it easier for women to get abortions.
“In states that have adopted an ERA, it has been used to force taxpayer funding for abortion,” said Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, an anti-abortion group.
“And one need look no further than the vigorous support that radical abortion groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood have put behind the ERA to know it would have disastrous consequences for pro-life laws.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Republicans held a hearing this week on a bill that would require medical care for infants that “survive” abortions.
“I think it is such a tragedy that there is an absence of a federal standard that will specify how babies born alive are going to be treated after surviving an attempted abortion,” said Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R).
Opponents argue that survivors of abortion are rare and say the bill is duplicitous of federal law and is merely an attempt to make it harder for women to access abortion later in pregnancy.
The Senate voted last year to block consideration of the bill, 53-44.
The Senate is also expected to vote this month on a bill sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The Senate blocked consideration of that bill, 51-46, in 2018.
Trump called on the Senate to vote again on the bill during his State of the Union address last week, raising the stakes of the abortion debate as the 2020 campaigns heat up.
“I’m also calling upon members of Congress here tonight to pass legislation finally banning the late-term abortion of babies,” he said. “Whether we are Republican, Democrat, or independent, surely we must all agree that every human life is a sacred gift from God.”