News Law and Policy

House GOP Poised to Revive 20-Week Abortion Ban

Emily Crockett

The new version of the ban is likely to include changes to its controversial rape exception, but pro-choice advocates say that's a red herring that ignores the reality of women's health needs.

Anti-choice activists were outraged when, on the day of the National March for Life, House Republicans decided at the last minute not to vote on a nationwide abortion ban after 20 weeks’ gestation.

Months later, despite recent high-profile political fights over abortion restrictions in other bills, House GOP leaders are announcing their intentions to revive the radical 20-week ban.

The new version of the ban is likely to include changes to its controversial rape exception. But, pro-choice advocates say, the rape debate is a red herring that ignores the reality of women’s health needs and the unconstitutionality of 20-week abortion bans.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) at a recent briefing told reporters that he intended to bring up the ban again, and that it would receive a full House vote.

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“It’s going to come up,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus, said of the 20-week ban.

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), who helped bring down the bill in January over concerns that its terms for rape exemptions were too harsh on victims, said that she is now “comfortable” with changes to the rape language.

“I can be in support of it,” Ellmers said.

It’s not clear exactly when the bill would come up for a vote, or what the bill’s final language will be.

Ellmers said the draft she saw would no longer require rape victims to report their crime to the police—something many survivors are reluctant to do—to qualify for a legal abortion after 20 weeks. Instead, a woman would have to tell her doctor she had been raped.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the bill’s lead sponsor, disputed Ellmers’s interpretation of the new language, but wouldn’t clarify why she was mistaken or what the final language might be.

Anti-choice activists have made 20-week bans, which directly challenge Roe v. Wade by banning abortion before a fetus is viable, a national priority. Similar bans at the state level have been struck down as unconstitutional every time they’ve been challenged in court, but ten states still have 20-week bans in force.

It’s not clear whether a 20-week ban with a less restrictive rape exemption will satisfy the GOP’s anti-choice base. Many believe that rape victims, even young girls, should always carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and that exceptions for rape or incest are at best a regrettable political concession.

Pro-choice advocates point out that rape exceptions not only work poorly in practice, but also obscure the real issues of how harmful abortion bans are on their own merits.

“These bans are blatantly unconstitutional,” Julianna Gonen, director of federal policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Rewire. “This is a procedure that is sometimes necessary, and we shouldn’t be picking and choosing which ones get legal protection. They all should.”

About 1 percent of all abortions occur after 20 weeks, and women have numerous reasons for needing them: tragic fetal abnormalities, being in denial as a result of rape or other trauma, being too young to have regular periods, being unable to raise enough money in time, or having difficulties navigating restrictive state laws.

“Rape exemptions may look good to some on paper,” Gonen said. “It might make them feel better about the draconian policies that they’re proposing. But these kinds of exemptions don’t work well in practice for a whole host of reasons.”

Women themselves might not know that the exemptions are available, Gonen said—or if they do, they face a blockade of inconsistent state reimbursement practices and doctors who fear criminal penalties.

“People shouldn’t think that it’s a magic wand, that suddenly the subgroup of women who need abortion at 20 weeks if they’ve been raped can just have them,” Gonen said.

The ban would likely pass the GOP-led House if brought up for a vote, Gonen said, but the Senate is less certain. Regardless, President Obama has threatened to veto the bill.

“I think we’re—I’ll say ‘safe’ in air quotes. For now,” Gonen said. “But it’s certainly not a good thing that we’re having our national legislature debate an unconstitutional restriction on abortion when there are other important things they could be doing.”

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