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The Forces that Stopped the Protection of the Unborn Who Feel Pain


Mark Stricherz - published on 03/16/15

Learn what halted this crucial legislation

WASHINGTON — It had been a rotten 24 hours. On the eve of the March for Life, female Republican lawmakers protested a clause in an ambitious pro-life bill that addressed reporting requirements for rape. After they failed to reach a compromise, House Republican leaders yanked the legislation from the floor. On the day of the march, activists read the news and stormed over to the office of one representative to confront her for helping to kill the bill. “Coward!” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, yelled in the hallway outside the office of Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C.

As the sun fell in the chilly January sky, a young GOP staffer walked from the twin doors on the southeastern wing of the Longworth House Office Building to head home for the day. Although the aide was not privy to the negotiations, he knew the players and his boss spoke at a caucus meeting in which the bill was discussed. The aide shook his head in disbelief at pro-lifers’ crack-up. We’ll do a better job of coordinating next time, he vowed.

In a follow-up interview, the aide criticized House leaders, pro-life officials, and female Republican lawmakers. "People were not talking with each other. No one spent a lot of time looking for problems in advance. What did in fact happen was an eruption or a rebellion, and if people had spoken to the right people in advance,” the aide said, his voice trailing off. “That’s all I will tell you.”

Days later, pundits speculated on and reporters described the reasons for the bill’s temporary defeat. “The idea that GOP is a party of moneyed interests posing as a culturally conservative party is, um, not always without empirical support,” Ross Douthat of The New York Times tweeted. “It’s a dicey moment for congressional Republicans’ relationship with the activists who represent their most reliable source of grassroots support,” reporter Joel Gehrke concluded in a heavily-reported story that suggested female GOP lawmakers deserved most of the blame for the bill’s defeat.

But a closer look at the polls and interviews with House aides, lawmakers, and pro-life leaders shows that the bill fell prey to a more common political foe: a lack of coordination. The politicians misunderstood the legislation, while the activists may have misunderstood the politics. Pro-life leaders may have overestimated the popularity of their legislation and failed to appreciate that some Republican lawmakers saw the legislation as a tough vote and resented the influence of conservative pressure groups. GOP House members failed to grasp that the bill’s reporting requirements for rape were similar to those in the so-called Hyde Amendment, which has guided federal funding of abortion for nearly four decades.  

Today, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act sits in legislative limbo. House Republican leaders have promised to hold a vote on the bill but have not set a date. "It has not been defeated. We’re working very hard to bring it up for a vote, and we expect to do so soon," Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview last month.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, gave a more cautious estimate. "I’m giving it at least a few more weeks. I hope something happens soon. We’re running out of time," Dannenfelser said in an interview February 27.

The legislation would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation except in limited circumstances. Pro-life leaders cited medical studies showing that unborn children at 20 weeks can feel pain, although pro-choice leaders quoted medical associations to the contrary.

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