House Republicans could not muster enough votes Tuesday to pass a bill that bans abortions in the District after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a closely watched measure that pitted Democrats 'claims of a "war on women" against pro-life advocates' state-by-state defense of the unborn.
Members supported the measure overall, 220 votes to 154, primarily along party lines, with 17 Democrat breaking ranks and voting in favor of the bill and six Republicans voting against it. But it did not garner the two-thirds support needed to green-light the controversial bill introduced by Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, to the chagrin of D.C. officials and pro-choice groups.
"Why was this measure limited only to women in the District of Columbia?" Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, said, later criticizing Republicans of "appealing to ideology" instead of focusing on pressing issues. "Here we face the worst economic crisis since the 1930s."
The chamber considered the bill under a suspension of rules, a move that restricted amendments to the bill and debate on the floor yet required the Republican majority to collect two-thirds approval for passage.
While the roll call forced House members to be scrutinized by pro-life or pro-choice groups' with scorecards — Mr. Franks demanded that the "yeas" and "nays" be counted — a companion bill pending in the Democrat-controlled Senate is unlikely to get much traction. House Democrats on Tuesday openly flouted the fact the measure has "no chance of becoming law."
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting member of Congress, argued that certain Republicans wanted a federal "imprimatur" to fortify state-by-state efforts to restrict abortion rights. Nine states have passed laws that restrict abortions based on when a fetus may feel pain, and a federal judge on Monday blocked a challenge to an Arizona state law that bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
On the House floor, members from both parties issued impassioned pleas for their cause. Mr. Franks said the practice of aborting fetuses that can feel pain "is the greatest human rights atrocity in the United States today."
His party colleagues described the "dismemberment" and "crushed heads" of babies during late-term abortions, while Democrats accused the majority of leading them down slippery slope that "plays politics with women's health."
"No one can doubt the war on women is on," Mrs. Norton said on the floor.
Rep. Martha Roby, Alabama Republican, shot back with an attempt to correct the record.
"I am a woman and I have not declared a war on myself," she said.
Limitations in the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would not apply in cases where an abortion is necessary to protect the life of the pregnant woman or prevent her "irreversible physical impairment." However, the restrictions would still apply in cases of rape, incest, or if the fetus has a medical condition.
From the start, the bill quickly became a lightning rod for criticism from pro-choice advocates and D.C. officials, who saw it as an intrusion on their right to self-determination under the Home Rule Act of 1973.
At a hearing in May, Democrats presented testimony from Christy Zink, a D.C. resident who had an abortion at 21 weeks post-fertilization after doctors found "severe brain abnormalities" in the fetus. Her unborn child, she said, would have had "near-constant pain."
Conversely the National Right to Life Committee made passage of the bill its top priority, arguing it follows the lead of other states and that the constitution allows Congress to exercise legislative authority over the District.
In a letter, the NRLC warned members of Congress they would be monitoring the vote for their scorecard on key right-to-life legislation.
A vote against the bill, they said, "will be accurately described as a vote to endorse and preserve the current policy of allowing legal abortion for any reason, until the moment of birth, in our nation's capital."
Earlier this week, Mrs. Norton praised Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America for deciding to score the vote as well.
Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, said the Republican majority has "reinvigorated the pro-choice movement" with a calculated measure that rebuts the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade to uphold abortion rights. She also noted the bill would affect the District, but no states with full voting rights in Congress.
"They didn't want to get women worked up in an election year," she said.
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