What’s comes next after Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the first-ever total abortion ban in the U.S. Congress?
King will have a new platform to advance his unconstitutional “heartbeat” bill and his stated goal of ending legal abortion. The Confederate-flag-displaying anti-choice stalwart, who counts abortion among his list of grievances against Black Americans, will helm a House of Representatives panel with a history of propagating conservative and often racially biased anti-abortion myths.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the lawmaker behind a failed GOP attempt to gut the chamber’s independent ethics office, announced late Friday that he had named King chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice in the 115th Congress.
The subcommittee is perhaps best known for a contentious hearing last year on legislation to ban sex- and race-selective abortion care—a bill that would have, in the words of reproductive justice advocate Miriam Yeung, the only pro-choice witness present, perpetuated “the offensive stereotype that Black women are unable to make reproductive health decisions for their own families.”
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At another hearing propping up the discriminatory Hyde Amendment and the so-called Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, King interrogated a reproductive justice advocate over whether killing “partially delivered” puppies would amount to a crime, in an apparent attempt to draw a parallel between dogs and Black babies.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), the subcommittee’s ranking member in the 114th Congress, expects King to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, former Chair Trent Franks (R-AL). Franks often used the subcommittee to test out Republicans’ messaging on anti-choice legislation and reach out to their anti-choice constituency, Cohen told Rewire in a phone interview.
“This is an unconstitutional bill that would be a waste of our time, but they’ve had other bills that had no viability, and they chose to take [up] the [sub]committee’s time,” Cohen said.
Democrats will aim to select a prominent member of Congress or the pro-choice advocacy community—in the case of the total abortion ban, more likely a “pro-choice constitutional lawyer”—as their sole witness at the anticipated hearings. Cohen wasn’t sure whether the total abortion ban stood a chance of proceeding through the full Judiciary Committee and to the House floor for a vote.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who has attended subcommittee hearings, echoed Cohen’s strategy.
“As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I will use my vote and my voice to ensure that we do not return to the days of back alley abortions where women died because this basic care was denied to them,” Chu said in an email. “But ultimately, the most powerful tool we have are the real stories of real women who refuse to be told what they can do with their bodies.”
Still, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a member of the subcommittee, feared that King’s leadership indicated that House Republicans “will likely push” the total abortion ban.
“Unfortunately for Republicans, banning abortion nationwide, which this bill effectively would do, is unconstitutional thanks to Roe v. Wade,” Nadler told Rewire in an email. “The bill also exposes Republicans’ clear lack of understanding of science and how the human body actually works.”
King’s total abortion ban so far has one co-sponsor: Franks. But the bill could garner more attention and support if King holds a hearing on it.
King’s office told Rewire Friday before the leadership announcement to expect more information in a week or so about the “heartbeat bill.” King worked with anti-choice extremist Janet Porter to model the bill on a failed Ohio attempt to end legal abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy—before many people know they’re pregnant.
“Appalled” Democrats Eye King’s Leadership
Nadler said King’s “inflammatory and disgraceful” statements about women, immigrants, and people of color “make me appalled, though sadly not surprised, that the Republican Conference would put him in charge of the Subcommittee responsible for defending civil rights and the protections guaranteed by our Constitution.”
Under King’s leadership, the subcommittee could attempt to bolster other anti-choice measures within Judiciary’s jurisdiction.
“I’m sure there will be more hearings,” Franks, the former subcommittee chair, told Rewire in a January 5 interview off the House floor. He quickly moved on to stress what he characterized as widespread support for three different bills: the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) of 2017 (HR 147), the sex- and race-selective abortion ban; the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (HR 37) based on the myth of infants “born alive” after abortions; and a 20-week abortion ban under the dubiously titled Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (HR 36).
Franks reintroduced the bills on the first day of the 115th Congress. Dozens of GOP co-sponsors have backed each in the two weeks since lawmakers returned to Washington.
“All of these have passed the House of Representatives before. Simply getting a vote in the Senate is the challenge,” Franks said. “We hope this time we might,” he continued, particularly in light of President-elect Trump’s and Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s incoming anti-choice administration.
Franks said he wants a “fair, up-or-down vote” despite the near impossibility of getting standalone anti-choice measures past Senate Democrats’ firewall. He previously slammed Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for failing to act.
“We’re looking to him this time to help us,” Franks said in a more measured attitude toward McConnell. “It’s pretty impossible to find an excuse [not to] at this point.”
Republicans Back Additional Anti-Choice Measures
House Republicans dropped other standalone anti-choice measures in the first days of the new Congress, timed to align with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, as is their custom,
The same day King introduced his total abortion ban, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) reintroduced his No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017 (HR 7). Smith’s biannual attempt to codify the Hyde Amendment goes far beyond making the discriminatory law permanent and, as in prior versions, aims to “interfere with public and private health insurance coverage for abortion,” according to the reproductive justice groups All* Above All and Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE).
“Already, too many women are denied abortion coverage because of how much they earn: HR 7 is cruel and callous legislation that would make these discriminatory bans permanent law,” All* Above All Co-Director Destiny Lopez said in a statement. “This is all part of the Trump-Pence agenda to punish women.”
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) confirmed that the chamber will vote on HR 7 next week, likely on Tuesday or Wednesday before Republicans leave for a joint congressional GOP retreat in Philadelphia.
Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), a member of last year’s $1.59 million, GOP-led Planned Parenthood “witch hunt,” introduced legislation (HR 354) to end federal funding for the health-care organization. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) pledged to use Affordable Care Act repeal to defund Planned Parenthood, which amounts to cutting off Planned Parenthood from Medicaid, Title X funds, and all government-run public health initiatives.
Black also introduced HR 217 to prevent Title X family planning funds from going to health-care providers that offer abortion care—the subject of ongoing Republican attacks in Congress and the executive branch.
Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn’s HR 524 would potentially ban fetal tissue donations from “induced abortion.” Black’s and Lamborn’s bills fall under the jurisdiction of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; several committees share jurisdiction over Smith’s bill.