USA TODAY WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House of Representatives approved a far-reaching bill to ban a woman's ability to seek an abortion after 20 weeks on a mostly party-line 228-196 vote Tuesday.
It stands no chance of becoming law under the Obama administration. The White House issued a veto threat Monday, calling the bill an "assault on a woman's right to choose." The Democratic Senate also has not scheduled a vote on the legislation.
However, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, justified the vote as a response to the recent murder conviction of Philadelphia physician Kermit Gosnell for abortion procedures conducted in his medical clinic. "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 said.
The bill included an exemption for women who get pregnant through rape or incest as long as they first report the sexual assault to legal authorities. It was added at the last minute by House Republican leaders after a broader Democratic amendment to add the exemption was defeated in the House Judiciary Committee last week. "It shows a distrust of women and a lack of the reality of sexual assaults," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., regarding the legal conditions placed on the exemption.
The legislation stirred a heated debate in the House. The majority of Democrats opposed the legislation and argued that House Republicans— 88% of whom are white males —were out of touch with women.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., the sponsor of the bill and a long-time abortion rights opponent, was a target of criticism last week when he commented in a June 12 committee hearing on the bill that the "incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy (is) very low." He later said he meant that third-trimester abortions of pregnancies caused by rape are rare.
Republicans tapped a woman, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, to moderate the House floor debate, although she does not serve on the Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over the legislation. There are no Republican women on that panel. Another Republican woman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, presided over the debate. Democrats also tapped a female lawmaker, Judiciary Committee member Lofgren, to lead the debate for their party.
"This is an area that has overwhelming public support," Blackburn said. "This is a step that needs to be taken to protect life."
The debate invigorated outside groups and activists on both sides of the abortion debate. Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, called it "the most important pro-life bill to be considered by the U.S. Congress in the last 10 years" and expressed confidence that it would eventually become law. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue called the bill "shameless politics" and accused abortion opponents in Congress of "catering to the most extreme wing of their political base."
Most states allow abortions up to the point when the fetus becomes viable, generally considered to be about 24 weeks of pregnancy. Franks' bill would ban abortions that take place 20 weeks after conception, which is equivalent to 22 weeks of pregnancy.
Ten states have passed laws similar to the House bill, and several are facing court challenges. Last month, a federal court struck down as unconstitutional Arizona's law, which differs slightly in banning abortion 20 weeks after pregnancy rather than conception.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health research organization that supports abortion rights, in 2009 1.3% of the 1.2 million abortions in the country, about 15,600, occurred 20 weeks after the fetus was conceived.