The XX Factor

GOP Women Stopped the 20-Week Abortion Bill. That’s Not Standing Up for Reproductive Rights.

Rep. Renee Ellmers is worried that the focus on abortion is making Republicans look bad.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Today, on the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Republicans have betrayed the movement. As my colleague Betsy Woodruff wrote Wednesday night, Republicans in the House just killed the vote on a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, even though a similar bill passed with ease last year in the same Republican-controlled body. Instead, they’re going to just vote on another bill attacking Obamacare, which would basically end most insurance coverage of abortion.  

So what happened here? The short answer is that women happened. Specifically, some female Republicans, led by Rep. Renee Ellmers and Rep. Jackie Walorski, who, according to the Washington Post, wanted to soften the 20-week ban bill, misleadingly named the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, because they felt the rape exceptions were too stringent. The bill only allowed rape exceptions for women who had filed reports with the police, despite the fact that the majority of rape victims don’t report the crimes

We’ve come a long way from 2003, when President George W. Bush signed a bill banning the safest method of performing late-term abortions amid a group of grinning men and zero women. And while Republican women in the House are still far from embracing abortion rights, their growing influence could actually shift the party away from the worst attacks on women’s bodies. Maybe my colleague Jessica Grose was right when she argued against the idea that the midterm elections were “bad for women.”

Still, it’s not like Republican congresswomen are standing up for reproductive rights. Ellmers said as much on Facebook, writing, “I have and will continue to be a strong defender of the prolife community.” The real beneficiaries here are Republican men, who are being protected from their worst impulses when it comes to talking about rape. As Dave Weigel writes in Bloomberg today, the bill’s unraveling “provided more evidence that anti-abortion activists couldn’t allow the debate to focus on rape.” Or, as Lindsey Graham put it to activists: “I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape.”

Ellmers, too, seems focused on how the party comes across. She expressed concern that passing one bill after another grabbing at women’s bodies would detract from Republican efforts to look a little less nutty. “I have urged leadership to reconsider bringing it up next 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 the 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].” 

Ellmers is right to be concerned, and not just because, between the explosion in anti-abortion bills and the hostility to insurance coverage of contraception, moderates, independents, and young people notice that Republicans are obsessed with restricting women’s access to reproductive health care. The 20-week abortion ban was simply going to be bigger news this time around than it was last year, because this time it was also expected to pass the Senate, giving Obama an opportunity for a big public veto, likely while surrounded by a group of grateful women. That’s not great press for a party trying to convince the public they’re not waging war on women. 

The surprising turn of events for the abortion bill will likely cast a pall over today’s March for Life. The theme of this year’s rally is “Every Life Is a Gift,” focusing specifically on the march organizers’ belief that pregnant women should be forced to give birth even when the fetus is suffering severe fetal abnormalities. That is, of course, what a 20-week abortion ban is designed to achieve, since many abnormalities are undetectable earlier in the pregnancy.