Next Thursday marks the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the opportunity for political spectacle hasn't been lost on Republicans in Congress.
The House plans to vote on legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks, as thousands of protesters gather in the streets outside the Capitol as part of the annual March for Life (the nonprofit organizers of which consider birth control pills a form of abortion). Leading the congressional delegation at the march will be Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Slated speakers include Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and even one Democrat, Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois.
It's hardly the first time House conservatives have staged such an event. For years, House Speaker John Boehner marked the anniversary with solemn statements posted on his House website, calling the ruling "tragic," and in 2010 he became the first speaker in history to address the assembled March for Lifers. While the House already passed the 20-weeks legislation in 2013, it was never taken up in the Democratic-controlled Senate. This year, however, Republicans control both chambers.
Buoyed by their success in the midterms, conservatives have united around the 20-week ban as a single strategy to target abortion rights. The bill, known as "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," would ban abortions two to four weeks before the fetus would be viable outside the womb, in violation of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which holds women have a constitutional right to abortion up to viability.
The bill is based on the medically disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks, and contains some exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother. Abortion-rights advocates argue that the bill is more extreme than it sounds. And the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has found no legitimate scientific information supporting the idea that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks.
President Obama has promised a veto if the bill if it reaches his desk.
But such a policy has already been adopted in a slew of Southern states, and it's one Republicans believe can help energize their base without turning off swing voters who might be alienated by a more frontal assault on Roe v. Wade. "This is something we can all get together on," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who's sponsoring the bill in the House with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, told Politico. "The truth is, this bill is a deeply sincere effort to protect both mothers and their pain-capable unborn babies."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has already signaled he'll introduce a companion bill to the upper chamber in the coming weeks.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards said she expects to see the bill defeated. Asked if abortion-rights advocates have anything planned for next week, she said she wouldn't engage the political theater surrounding the day. "It's interesting," Richards told reporters at the National Press Club on Wednesday, "because this is our work every day, through health centers and staff and clinics all across the country. We're seeing a 20-year low in teen pregnancy and in abortion rates, and that's because we're doing a better job in this country of having access to family planning."
The moves in Congress come at a time when the decision to get an abortion is increasingly being governed by geography. A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights think tank, found that states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions since Republicans flooded state legislatures in 2010, and the number of states considered "extremely hostile" to abortion has more than tripled. (In its report Guttmacher categorized states with four to five abortion restrictions as "hostile" to abortion, and placed states with more than five restrictions on the books in the "extremely hostile" category.) The 20-week ban is among the restrictions to flourish at the state level, with 10 states enacting such bans in recent years under the premise that a fetus can feel pain at that point—and that was before Republicans gained 11 more legislative chambers in the 2014 midterms.
A highlight of the midterm elections for pro-choice Democrats, Richards said, was that Republicans ran as moderates on abortion and other women's health issues. "It was fascinating to see in every tough competitive race in the country, particularly in those with nationwide attention, there was not a single anti-women's health candidate running proudly on their record," she said. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., she noted, won his bid for Senate in large part by backing away from his support for "personhood" measures, and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, won by embracing "a woman's right to contraception."
But if Democrats hoped such wins would temper Republican appetite for abortion legislation targeting Roe v. Wade, they're mistaken. In the first few days of the new Congress, Republicans introduced five different abortion restrictions. And that was just a warm-up for next week.
Libby Isenstein contributed to this article