A bill that would ban abortions in D.C. after 20 weeks of pregnancy failed to pass the House Tuesday, but anti-abortion activists hailed the vote as a sign that their efforts ultimately would succeed.
The bill was based on the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain at a gestational age of 20 weeks or older. The National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, made the legislation its top priority on Capitol Hill this year. Nine states have passed similar measures, and a federal judge upheld a similar law in Arizona this week.
The vote in favor of the bill was 220-154, with 17 Democrats joining 203 Republicans to support it. But because it was considered under special rules requiring a two-thirds vote for passage, the bill won't proceed to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it was unlikely to come up for a vote.
Opponents said the bill was an attempt to roll back a woman's constitutional right to an abortion. Advocacy groups on both sides of the abortion debate were noting how each lawmaker voted, putting members under additional pressure.
"Today's groundbreaking majority vote constitutes a giant step towards this bill ultimately becoming law," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. He added that the lawmakers who voted against it "will have to explain to their constituents why they voted to endorse a policy of legal abortion for any reason, until the moment of birth, in their nation's capital."
The D.C. Council removed all criminal abortion laws from the books in 2004, and supporters said that was one reason the bill targeted the District. Congress has jurisdiction over the District because it is the nation's capital.
The White House has not taken a position on the bill, although President Barack Obama favors abortion rights. White House spokesman Jay Carney described the legislation as divisive and said Tuesday that Congress should be focusing on tax cuts for the middle class. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has pledged his support for the legislation.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., the bill's lead sponsor, described the abortion of fetuses older than 20 weeks as a human-rights atrocity and said the evidence that such fetuses can feel pain is overwhelming. Opponents said there is no scientific consensus on when fetuses can feel pain.
"What we are doing to babies is real. It is barbaric in the truest sense of the word," Franks said.
Several Democratic lawmakers said the bill was part of a Republican "war on women."
"We're again putting on this show for the extreme conservatives with an unconstitutional bill that has no chance of becoming law," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
The bill included an exception to protect the life of the mother but no exceptions to account for fetal abnormalities, the health of the mother or cases of rape or incest.