WASHINGTON – There they go again. Given control of Congress and the chance to frame an economic agenda for the middle class, the first thing Republicans do is tie themselves in knots over … abortion and rape.
I’m not kidding. In a week when President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to issue a progressive manifesto of bread-and-butter policy proposals, GOP leaders responded by taking up the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” – a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But a vote on the legislation had to be canceled after female GOP House members reportedly balked over the way an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape was limited.
The whole thing was, in sum, your basic 360-degree fiasco.
At least there are some in the party who recognize how much trouble Republicans make for themselves by breaking the armistice in the culture wars and launching battles that cannot be won. It looks as if the nation will have to stand by until GOP realists and ideologues reach some sort of understanding, which may take some time.
It’s important to understand that the “Pain-Capable” bill was never anything more than an act of political fantasy. The only purpose of the planned vote was to create an “event” that the annual anti-abortion March for Life, held Thursday in Washington, could celebrate.
You might think the demonstrators already had reason to cheer. The abortion rate is at “historic lows,” having dropped by 13 percent in the decade between 2002 and 2011, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The main reason is that there are fewer unwanted pregnancies, which suggests logically that if Republicans really want to reduce abortion, what they should do is work to increase access to birth control.
More to the point, according to the CDC, only 1.4 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks. This means the bill, if it somehow became law, would have minimal impact.
But it won’t become law, as everyone in Congress well knows. The White House has announced that Obama would veto the measure, if it ever reached his desk. To get that far, the bill would have to pass the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have to win over enough Democrats to cross the 60-vote threshold, which is highly unlikely.
Theoretically, though, any reasonable-sounding anti-abortion measure should at least be able to make it through the House, with its expanded GOP majority. Thursday, it passed a bill to limit the use of taxpayer money for abortions.
But even in the context of today’s far-right Republican Party, the “Pain-Capable” bill struck many House members, particularly women, as unreasonable.
At issue, apparently, is that in making exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape, the bill specifies that the rape must have been reported to law enforcement. This restriction cannot help but bring to mind the grief Republicans suffered in 2012 over Senate candidate Todd Akin’s appalling attempt to distinguish between “legitimate rape” and some other kind of rape.
Although the House leadership maintained that all was sweetness and light, reporters heard rumblings Wednesday that the bill was in trouble with moderate Republicans, especially women. Then unusual numbers of female GOP House members were seen leaving the offices of the majority whip. Then the bill was pulled and a different anti-abortion measure – prohibiting federal funding for abortions – was substituted.
I should note that there is no generally accepted scientific basis for the premise of the “Pain-Capable” bill. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said there is no legitimate research supporting the idea that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks.
I understand that for those who believe in their hearts that abortion is murder, there is an imperative to do something, anything, to stop it. Some people have similar moral passion about capital punishment or the thousands of lives lost each year to gun violence.
Given that the Supreme Court has decided abortion is a legally protected right, the anti-abortion movement has done what it could – made abortions very difficult to obtain in some states where the pro-life position has sufficient support. Hooting and hollering on Capitol Hill does nothing for abortion opponents except fleece them of campaign contributions.
People, we are in an economic recovery whose fruits are not reaching the middle class. We have a crucial need to address U.S. infrastructure and competitiveness. We face myriad challenges abroad, including Islamic terrorism and global warming.
If a renewal of the culture wars is your answer, Republicans, you totally misheard the question.
Eugene Robinson’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.