WASHINGTON – The House approved legislation Tuesday that would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks of pregnancy, the most sweeping abortion restriction to pass any chamber of Congress in a decade. The vote was 228-196.
While the measure is unlikely to become law — it faces opposition in the Senate and a White House veto threat — it could reverberate politically over the next year and a half, as both Republicans and Democrats appeal to voters in this year’s special elections and the 2014 midterms.
The vote was mostly along party lines, with just seven Republicans voting with Democrats against it and seven Democrats voting with Republicans in its favor.
Authored by Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act aims to capitalize on the public outrage surrounding Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion provider who was convicted last month of first-degree murder in the case of three babies born alive in his clinic. The jury also convicted him of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar of Virginia, who died from a drug overdose while undergoing an abortion at his clinic.
While Republicans have pushed for a series of limits on abortion over the past 10 years — including successfully barring the District of Columbia government from using its own money to pay for abortions since 2011 — Tuesday’s vote marks the first time Congress has voted to redefine the point where a fetus becomes viable.
Under the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, abortions can be performed until the point when an individual doctor determines a fetus’ viability, which is generally defined as up to 24 weeks of gestation. After that point, the government can prohibit the procedure as long as it provides sufficient safeguards for the mother’s health and well-being.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion political action committee, called the vote “historic” and noted that in the past decade, Congress had restricted abortion votes to issues such as federal funding and parental consent.
“For the first time since Roe v. Wade, we will protect that child’s life after a certain point,” Dannenfelser said.
The House vote underscores how polarized the two parties are on abortion, even as they may be moving closer together on immigration and a small number of other social questions.