What Changed About the House GOP's Abortion Ban Debate

The last time the GOP voted on a 20-week abortion ban, Kermit Gosnell has just been convicted of infanticide.

on December 21, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, a day before the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision and the anti-abortion March for Life, House Republicans decided not to vote on the same 20-week abortion ban that easily passed in the chamber in June 2013. While the bill hasn't changed, the political environment has. Now, Republicans are worried about alienating women and millennials. In 2013, a month after abortionist Kermit Gosnell was convicted of killing three babies, House leadership wanted to act. 

Abortion-rights activists argued that the Gosnell case was an example of illegal abortion performed by an unqualified person who preyed on women who couldn't obtain legal procedures. Anti-abortion activists said this proved their point. "What we need to learn from the Gosnell case is that late-term abortion is infanticide," Kirsten Powers wrote at the Daily Beast

House Republicans used the case to justify the bill. "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," said House Speaker John Boehner.

North Carolina Representative Renee Ellmers, the chair of the Republican Women's Policy Committee, also invoked Gosnell in a speech supporting the bill on the House floor. Ellmers called the legislation "an important bill that will protect women and children," adding that "coupled with the now-known dangerous acts of an abortionist like Kermit Gosnell, it is clear that Congress must act." 

This time around, instead of reacting to the anti-abortion momentum in the wake of the Gosnell case, GOP dissenters worried that the bill, and its rule that only cases of rape and incest reported to the police would qualify for exemptions, would alienate women and millennials. 

During a recent Republican lawmaker retreat, Ellmers did not mention Gosnell, but "urged leadership to reconsider bringing" up the bill, stressing the "need to be smart about how we're moving forward," according to National Journal. That meant not spending the first few weeks of the new Congress on "an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren't as important [to them]," she said. Ellmers also noted that her party had gotten into trouble with the issue in the past. Arizona Representative Trent Franks, the bill's sponsor, was criticized in 2013 for saying that "the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low."

Several disappointed anti-abortion groups pointed out that millennials (narrowly) support a 20-week abortion ban, and were equally unimpressed with Ellmers' intent to vote for the bill despite encouraging the House not to vote on it and withdrawing her name. The Weekly Standard's John McCormack argued that, by bringing up the reporting rule present in the 2013 bill, Ellmers was "creating controversy where none previously existed" and providing a talking point for Democrats. Erick Erickson at RedState, meanwhile, blasted Ellmers for pulling her name from the bill, then saying she would vote for it, calling the move "a two-faced ploy that worked."

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