The XX Factor

Congress Will Vote On a 20-Week Abortion Ban, a Small Step Toward a Scary Political Goal for Anti-Choice Groups

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says the bill is about “ending suffering and helping people live.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House of Representatives will hold a vote on a proposed 20-week abortion ban next week, according to an announcement Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made this week. The goal of the legislation, which would punish abortion providers with up to five years in prison for terminating a pregnancy after 20 weeks’ gestation, is “ending suffering and helping people live,” McCarthy said.

Seventeen U.S. states currently ban abortion after 20 weeks, though many of those laws are currently being contested in court. Since Roe v. Wade guarantees the right to abortion care until fetal viability—around 24 weeks’ gestation—advocates have argued that states cannot prohibit abortions performed before this point. In 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban, which a lower court deemed unconstitutional. That policy remains enjoined.

Arguments for 20-week bans rest on the anti-abortion groups’ contention that fetuses can experience pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Doctors, including those whose research anti-choice advocates cite, say scientific research does not support that claim. Nevertheless, the bill that will come up before Congress next week bears a poetic title: Legislators will vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

The House passed similar bills in 2013 and 2015, but was stymied by the Senate both times when the chamber couldn’t get a filibuster-proof supermajority. The makeup of the Senate is no friendlier to anti-abortion bills now than it was then, making the 20-week ban an incredibly long shot for the House Republicans who back the bill, even though Donald Trump is raring to sign it.

But that may not matter to anti-abortion advocates, who are already looking further down the road. The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-choice group, told Rewire that the ultimate goal is to get Democrats in Congress on the record on this issue before the 2018 election. Recently, Democratic leaders have said that self-identified Democrats who oppose women’s rights to abortion care are still welcome in the party—they’ll even get party funds to help along their campaigns. Groups like the Susan B. Anthony List may hope voters who oppose abortion rights will see their Democratic representatives vote against the bill and get taken down by either a Republican opponent or a primary challenger from the right. Next week’s bill is one small strategic step toward a political goal, not an immediate policy one.