Abortion-Rights Advocates Hopeful GOP Abortion-Bill Revolt Signals Sea Change

But the debate may hinge more on the question of rape.

House Republican leaders shocked the abortion-rights community on Wednesday night when they pulled legislation amid a revolt by female GOP lawmakers. At issue: a bill that would have banned abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, and in particular, a clause holding that exceptions be allowed in the case of rape and incest.

Initially intended to make the bill more palatable to women and younger voters within the party, the rape clause sparked arguments about the definition of rape and, crucially, about the fact that rape victims would have had to report the crime to qualify for an abortion under the law in question. It's a thorny issue for the GOP, a party still scarred by talk of "legitimate rape," and further, since the majority of rapes go unreported, the clause would have put rape victims in an especially difficult place.

While the overall bill polled well—a majority of Americans agree with banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy—too many GOP lawmakers (particularly women) were uncomfortable with the rape clause.

"When you start getting into telling a woman that she has to report she was raped to be able to qualify, that takes it in a direction that makes me very uncomfortable," Rep. Tom Rooney told National Journal earlier this week. Other conservatives, like Rep. Steve King, who attended a Conservative Opportunity Society meeting in support of the legislation earlier this week, said he would have gotten around the reporting requirement by making no exceptions in the case of rape or incest.

Abortion-rights advocates were surprised and encouraged by the GOP's move to pull the legislation, particularly as it came just before Thursday's March for Life, usually a highlight of the year for antiabortion activists.

"It's encouraging that some politicians are starting to recognize that it is a political vulnerability to attack women's access to abortion and other health care," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood. "It would be better if they recognized the real impact that these attacks have on women's lives."

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue, in an interview Thursday, offered some similarly tempered optimism. "I don't think it's a shift within the GOP," she said. "I think it's an awakening for some of them to the actual political reality in this party, which is that voters do not want this to be a focus of the new Congress."

Yet the strong reaction of female House GOP lawmakers against the "pain capable" legislation suggests far more than mere political calculation. And were it not for the outspoken complaints of lawmakers such as Rep. Renee Ellmers, the bill might well have proceeded unhindered.

After House Republican leadership abandoned the effort to pass the legislation, which would have affected about 1 percent of abortions that take place annually, they moved forward with what they expected to be a less controversial bill codifying a ban on federal abortion funding, this time avoiding all discussion of rape. That bill, known as the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, passed easily in the House Thursday afternoon. The vote was 242 to 179. The legislation is expected to die in the Senate, where it would have to garner 60 votes, and in the unlikely event it surmounts such a barrier, President Obama has threatened a veto.

The pivot to a new bill marks a clear shift in approach for GOP leadership. And Sen. Lindsey Graham even openly acknowledged the GOP's need to avoid discussions about the definition of rape, telling Bloomberg's David Weigel, "We're not here debating legitimate rape. We're talking about saving babies at 20 weeks."

Meanwhile, abortion-rights advocates see it as a somewhat larger victory.

"Was the rape clause the straw that broke the camel's back?" asked NARAL's Hogue. "Sure. But many people in the GOP, especially the ones that are not the hard-core ideologues on this kind of stuff, are trying to create a kind of calculus around what's politically acceptable."

The takeaway, she added, is "this is not what voters want them to focus on."