Call it a coup by Republican women. That’s what thwarted a House vote on a controversial anti-abortion bill, interrupting the legislative celebration planned by their own party on the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Opponents of the measure successfully whipped up enough support to scare the House out of a vote, which was set to coincide with the annual March For Life on Thursday. But Wednesday evening, as thousands of activists flooded into D.C., the GOP leadership surrendered.
Citing the bill’s narrow rape and incest exceptions, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana, withdrew their co-sponsorship of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act on Tuesday. Along the way, they convinced a group of Republican women to join them on the warpath against the 20-week abortion ban. Many of them were concerned that only women who had reported rape to law enforcement would still be eligible for an abortion after five months.
National Journal reported that Ellmers, even before backing away from the bill, had cautioned against it in a closed-door session with House Republicans last week.
“We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we're moving forward,” Ellmers told National Journal. “The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn't be on an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren't as important [to them].”
The sudden reversal certainly looks embarrassing, especially when party leaders swore that the vote would push through as late as Wednesday afternoon. But the equivocation is significant.
Could this be a sign that the Republican Party is listening to women?
For years, conservative men have been the most avid anti-abortion supporters. And with women representing only 20 percent of the House, it’s not surprising that men dominate the conversation on any debate, let alone abortion.
But of the 16 Republicans who took the floor in support of the bill Wednesday, only one was female (granted, bill sponsor Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was managing the floor debate).
True, there has been a recent uptick in female legislators’ involvement with anti-abortion measures. In the 112th Congress, Republican women in the House sponsored only two of the 19 anti-abortion bills—less than 11 percent of all anti-abortion legislation
The next year, female GOP legislators co-sponsored 30 percent of anti-abortion measures. Female House members have already filed or co-sponsored two anti-abortion bills since the new session of Congress began in January.
If for no other reason than to make them more attractive to younger constituents, female GOP legislators in the House seem to have recognized that sweeping abortion restrictions aren’t feasible. The simple fact that the party divided over the severity of the restrictions instead of gleefully banning together to lob stones at Roe v. Wade is something of a GOP landmark.
“These attacks are so dangerous, extreme and unpopular that House Republicans can't even get their membership lined up behind them,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards told the Huffington Post. “This should be an important message to politicians who continue to ignore the majority of the public who want Congress to focus on policies to move women forwards rather than taking them back.”
Women taking agency over the issue could be the best PR move that Republicans have made this session. During a hearing on last year’s version of the bill, sponsor Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., caused public outrage when he said that the number of pregnancies resulting from rape are “very low.” Maybe with women at the helm, the GOP can avoid missteps when talking about abortion (Remember Todd Akin?).
Although President Obama had promised it a swift veto, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act was a token of appreciation to the March For Life crowd for a half-century of attacks on abortion access.
The anti-abortion activists won’t go home completely empty handed. The House voted instead on Rep. Christopher Smith’s, R-N.J., bill to permanently bar federal abortion funding. It passed 242-179.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.