The National Right to Life Committee has named its top legislative priority for 2012: passing a bill sponsored by an Arizona Republican that would ban abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, D.C.
With a Democratic Senate and President Barack Obama in the White House, the measure has virtually no chance of becoming law this year. But opponents are gearing up for a fight anyway, and they’ll be coming at the legislation from two different angles — as abortion rights supporters and as backers of more autonomy for the District.
Introduced by Rep. Trent Franks, the measure is modeled after legislation enacted in Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma and Alabama. The bill would bar abortions from taking place after the 20th week of pregnancy — the point at which some medical experts suggest fetuses can begin to feel pain — unless there’s a clear determination that the mother’s life is in danger.
Because Congress has legislative powers over the District, Franks and others see an opportunity for the federal government to act on a less-than-national scale on the issue.
“I like to see children of all ages everywhere protected, but in this case, this offers us an opportunity to come together to at least to protect the children in the District, for whom we have absolute constitutional, exclusive right to legislate,” Franks told Roll Call.
That’s precisely the problem, argue opponents of the legislation.
“This is the first time that a bill that goes out to the District of Columbia is clearly and unmistakably aimed at women across the country,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said. “The sponsors seek a federal precedent to run with ... but if you want the easy way out, you could always try the District of Columbia, and it’s the most unprincipled way to approach an issue like this.”
Abortion rights supporters criticize the bill on policy, arguing it would bar the procedure in cases where the fetus faced serious health risks.
They are also enlisting supporters of D.C. autonomy, a group that has considerable overlap with backers of abortion rights.
“The basic thing here is that we’re always jumping all over the District as if it were our plaything,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. “We tell people to pay their taxes but that they can’t use their own money. ... I’ve found that as long as I’ve been here to be very offensive.”
The women of the Congressional Black Caucus recently sent a letter to Democratic women in the Senate asking them to rally against the bill, which they called “the newest threat to the rights of women in the District of Columbia.”
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.