WASHINGTON — After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.
Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Their efforts will move to the forefront Tuesday when House Republicans plan to bring to the floor a measure that would prohibit the procedure after 22 weeks of pregnancy — the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in either chamber in a decade.
The bill stands no chance of becoming law, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. Republican leaders acknowledge that its purpose is to satisfy vocal elements of their base who have renewed a push for new restrictions on reproductive rights, even if those issues harmed the party’s reputation with women in 2012.
But beyond Washington, advocates on both sides of the issue say the chance to limit abortion in the near future is very real. Republican-dominated state legislatures in South Carolina and Wisconsin are weighing bans similar to the one the House will vote on, which would impose the 22-week limit based on the scientifically disputed theory that fetuses at that stage of development can feel pain.
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The measures stand a reasonable chance of passing in both states as well as in Texas, where last week Gov. Rick Perry added abortion restrictions to the Legislature’s agenda. Conservatives are pushing for a vote by next week.
Already this year, Arkansas and North Dakota have passed even more restrictive bans in attempts to directly challenge Supreme Court precedent.
Much of the movement in recent weeks can be linked to the outcry over the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia physician who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions.
His case, coming on top of successful efforts to curtail reproductive rights in several states over the past three years, has reinvigorated the anti-abortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said.
“These laws are flying through,” said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports access to abortions. “The attention has really been at the state level around abortion issues. Now what you also see at the federal level is very disturbing, and it shows that abortion opponents are very emboldened.”
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the House bill “the most significant legislation on abortion” at the federal level since 2003, when Congress passed a ban on a type of late-term procedure.
On the eve of the House vote, the Obama administration released a statement late Monday opposing the bill, saying it “shows contempt for women’s health and rights.”
Aware of the risks inherent in abortion politics, Republican leaders have moved to insulate themselves from Democrats’ criticism that they are opening a new front in the “war on women.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., will manage the debate on the House floor, a role that would customarily go to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
And in a last-minute revision, House leaders slipped in a provision that would allow for a limited exception in cases of rape or incest
if the woman had reported the crime.
Still, the re-emergence of abortion as a driving issue among the conservative base has left some moderate Republicans baffled.
“I think it’s a stupid idea to bring this up,” said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. “The economy is on everybody’s minds. We’re seeing stagnant job numbers. Confidence in the institution, in government, is eroding. And now we’re going to have a debate on rape and abortion.”
Dent said the party risked opening itself up to another “Akin eruption,” a reference to Todd Akin, a Missouri congressman who was defeated last year in a Senate race after saying the female body could block a pregnancy after “a legitimate rape.”