Republicans countered by assigning women to conspicuous roles in managing the bill on the House floor and presiding over the chamber. Republican women were prominent among those speaking in favor of the legislation.
The bill, said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who was assigned to manage the bill despite not being on the Judiciary Committee, would “send the clearest possible message to the American people that we do not support more Gosnell-like abortions.”
The Republican leadership gave the green light to the abortion bill after social conservatives coalesced around the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor who was recently sentenced to life in prison for what prosecutors said was the murder of three babies delivered alive. Abortion foes said it exemplified the inhumanity of late-term abortions.
“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,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Absent from the debate was the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who last week sparked a controversy by saying that rape resulted in few pregnancies.
After Franks’ remark, which he later modified, Republicans quietly altered the bill to include an exception to the 20-week ban for instances of rape and incest. Democrats still balked, saying the exception would require a woman to prove that she had reported the rape to authorities.
The bill has an exception when a physical condition threatens the life of the mother, but Democratic efforts to include other health exceptions were rebuffed.
The legislation would ban abortions that take place 20 weeks after conception, which is equivalent to 22 weeks of pregnancy.
Some 10 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 percent of the 1.2 million abortions in the country, about 15,600, occurred 20 weeks after the fetus was conceived.
Supporters of the legislation also contended that fetuses can feel pain after about 20 weeks, and the bill cites extensively from studies agreeing with that conclusion. Opponents say such findings are inconclusive.
Pro-choice groups argued that the 20-week ban, in addition to being unconstitutional, would affect women just at the point of learning of a fetal anomaly or determining that the pregnancy could put the mother’s life in danger.