Updated 2:38 p.m. | House Republican leaders — already battling Democratic criticism for planning to bring a bill to the floor next week that would ban abortions after 20 weeks nationwide — now have to fend off fallout after Rep. Trent Franks waded into the treacherous politics of pregnancies resulting from rape.
The bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee 20-12 on Wednesday afternoon, almost completely along party lines. The vote came a few hours after the Arizona Republican and bill sponsor said that "the instance of rape resulting in pregnancy is very low."
The statement was made in reference to an amendment offered by House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., that would allow women to have abortions after the 20-week threshold in cases of rape and incest; there are no such exceptions written into the bill.
Franks argued that those exceptions were moot, as the legislation was designed to protect unborn fetuses after 20 weeks and most abortion laws that provide exceptions for rape victims are valid only if the victim reports the crime within 48 hours.
The point was further moot, he continued, because of what he said is the low rate of pregnancy resulting from cases of rape.
By the afternoon, Franks was already trying to clarify his comments after Democrats seized on them.
"My friends on the other side constantly want to try to inject the rape/incest question always into the debate," Franks said. “Just to make clear my point earlier, pregnancies from rape that result in abortion after the beginning of the sixth month are very rare. That's a matter of fact.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., retorted, "The suggestion that rape rarely leads to pregnancy has no basis in science or fact."
Franks responded, "And I would just like to point out that I never made such a suggestion."
Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., backed up Franks, saying few abortions performed after the start of the sixth month are related to rape.
Franks' statement was reminiscent of one made last summer by former GOP Rep. Todd Akin that all but sank his 2012 Senate challenge to Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. It was almost instantly seized on by Democrats on the committee, particularly Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Lofgren. It will surely come up again if the bill hits the floor next week, as scheduled.
Democrats were already on the offensive Wednesday morning. By the time Franks spoke about rape and pregnancy rates, Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had already sent out an alert to reporters about the markup, noting that all 22 of the House Judiciary Committee Republicans are male. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a similar release.
“There is no more eloquent a message to the women of America than the sight of an all-male Republican panel advancing a bill to restrict women’s health choices," Hammill said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "House Republicans are forcing through a bill that makes absolutely no allowance for protecting the health of women, or the victims of rape and incest."
Caitlin Legacki, who worked as spokeswoman for McCaskill's 2012 campaign, told CQ Roll Call that as a political matter, statements like the one Franks made Wednesday will only help Democrats.
"As Republicans continue to fail miserably at their 'rebranding' efforts across the board, incidents like this one (and all the others before it) serve only to remind independent and moderate voters how far gone today's Republican Party really is," Legacki said in an email. "As long as Republicans continue to subscribe to these beliefs, which are just fundamentally and factually incorrect, you'll continue to see Democrats over-performing with women, moderates, independents and anyone else with even a mild case of empathy."
Spokesmen for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., declined to comment on Franks' remarks or offer insights into how such remarks could affect the House Republican Conference's overall image.
Niels Lesniewski and Joanna Anderson contributed to this report.