House Republicans are beginning to speak out about the high-profile case against a Philadelphia abortion doctor, but leaders, committee chairmen and rank-and-file members have yet to coalesce around a single strategy to address the hot-button issue.
The trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider who is suspected of killing four newborn babies and a Virginia woman, has given anti-abortion lawmakers in the GOP a new platform to discuss the issue.
However, the different tracks currently being pursued by various factions of the Republican caucus indicate that lawmakers who oppose abortion rights might be struggling to pin down the best way to tackle the matter — if at all.
Two House committees have begun to plant the seeds for formal investigations into the unsanitary and dangerous conditions at Gosnell's clinic.
The Judiciary panel wants all 50 state attorneys general to weigh in on the rights of newborns and unborn babies and the extent to which they prosecute doctors who evade existing late-term laws. The Energy and Commerce Committee has transmitted questions to state health officials inquiring about regulations, licensing and oversight at abortion clinics in their individual states.
Tennessee Republican Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Stephen Fincher, along with Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, introduced a resolution “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that Congress and the States should investigate and correct abusive, unsanitary, and illegal abortion procedures.”
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has over the past few weeks taken to Twitter to remind followers about “#Gosnell.” Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has inserted himself in the conversation by issuing a statement praising the committees for their efforts. An aide told CQ Roll Call, however, that there is currently no timetable in place for scheduling floor consideration of the resolution.
So far, outside anti-abortion groups are pleased with policy developments since Gosnell’s trial began eight weeks ago. (The court now stands in recess as the jury mulls its verdict.)
Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America's Legislative Action Committee, praised Congress for turning a slew of House floor speeches condemning Gosnell into action, while acknowledging that clear steps forward are not immediately intuitive in a case like this one.
“I think they’re still figuring out what is within the proper authority of the federal government versus the states,” Nance said, “but, as we know, the federal government has lots of authority to encourage the states to do the right thing. And they do it all the time, either with carrots or with sticks.”
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, agreed that House Republicans are on the right track. “I think what’s occurred so far is appropriate given the situation," he said. "The jury is out and I think that it will be appropriate for people to say and do more once the trial is concluded.”
Johnson did suggest, though, that the Gosnell trial provides a new opening to pick up where the NRLC left off last Congress, after the House was unable to garner the necessary two-thirds majority vote on a bill to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the District of Columbia.
Building off successes at the state level on the 20-week abortion ban, Arizona GOP Rep. Trent Franks, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, has reintroduced the bill.
“Right now, abortion is legal for any reason right up until the moment of birth” in D.C., Johnson said. “The federal district right now is wide open for the next Gosnell.”
For groups that support abortion rights, the lack of a clear House Republican strategy on the Gosnell front shows it lacks a compelling case.
National Abortion Federation President and CEO Vicki Saporta said the Gosnell case is an aberration and no pro-abortion-rights organization has condoned it. But she said she expects Republicans to use the case “to justify going on a fishing expedition in hopes of furthering their agenda of limiting access to abortion care."
“If there were a problem with the quality of care that women receive at abortion clinics, we would have seen attempts to pass regulations a long time ago," she continued. “If there was an issue with the safety record of abortions and the quality of care women are receiving in this country, you would have a bill.”
House Republicans might not have an appetite right now for a fight on abortion issues at all, one senior Democratic aide speculated Friday. “House Republican leaders know that focusing on a divisive social issue, rather than working to create jobs or complete work on a budget, is not what the American people want.”
To which a senior Republican aide fired back, “Who thinks taking a stand against numerous allegations of infanticide is ‘divisive’?”