House Republicans haven’t voted to ban abortion nationwide — yet

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House Republicans haven’t voted to ban abortion nationwide — yet

One of the first bills House Republicans passed this Congress was about abortion.

But the legislation was far more tepid than that proposed by Republican governors and legislatures across the country, who have introduced stringent abortion restrictions including so-called heartbeat bills that ban abortion after about the sixth week of pregnancy.

Instead, these two measures the House voted on are two bills that are more performative than practical: the “Born-Alive” act, a measure endorsed by a coalition of anti-abortion groups, which aims to provide medical care to infants who survive abortion, and then a resolution condemning violence against crisis pregnancy centers and other anti-abortion organizations.

Normally, the first bills a new House majority votes on signal ideal legislation they would enact if their party controlled all levers of government. But after Dobbs v. Jackson, which reset the national abortion conversation and allowed states to significantly reduce access to abortion, Republicans have yet to bring forth a strong national abortion ban. Instead, they seem to be laying the groundwork with messaging bills that try to make anti-abortion measures seem more palatable.

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It’s clear that Democrats overperformed historical trends and campaigned on abortion rights. House Republicans seem to be backing away from directly obstructing abortion access. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to, but they’ve perhaps realized that now is not the moment.

“Republicans needed some sort of national message about what they were going for in the near term that wasn’t radically out of step with public opinion,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, editor at National Review, a conservative publication.

“So that wasn’t a complete ban on all abortion, but it gave them something to talk about, which is an improvement on the status quo as far as pro-lifers are concerned, but one that has public support,” Ponnuru added.

The two abortion-related measures that House Republicans started with included a resolution condemning attacks on anti-abortion facilities and churches, and another that would require healthcare workers to try to provide medical care to any infant born alive after an attempted abortion procedure, a situation that is exceedingly rare. It is unlikely they will be taken up by the Democratic-led Senate.

The legislation is in line with what anti-abortion groups have pushed for. In a letter to members of Congress sent on Jan. 3, several anti-abortion, conservative organizations — like the Heritage Foundation and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America — laid out a series of measures described as “the floor, not the ceiling, of what we expect from a pro-life majority in the House of Representatives.”

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The letter includes support for the “Born-Alive Act,” one of the two measures passed by House Republicans that aims to provide medical care to infants who survive abortion. But it lists multiple other priorities, too, urging Congress to “limit interstate flow” of abortion drugs, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and demanding that Congress end taxpayer funding for abortion, among other things. The top priority in the letter is the Heartbeat Protection Act — introduced by Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., last week — which would require doctors performing abortions to check for electrical activity in the cells that eventually develop into a fetus’ heart and ban abortion if one is detected.

With the end of Roe and a Republican-led House, the debate over how to handle abortion rights has two dimensions, said Ponnuru. “One of them is whether there should be federal action at all, and if so, what form that should take. And the other, the other main one is sort of how far and how fast to go,” he said.

The resolution condemning attacks on anti-abortion facilities, sponsored by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., faced pushback by Democrats who argued it neglected to acknowledge attacks against healthcare providers that support abortion rights. “Instead of joining Democrats in condemning all political violence unequivocally, House Republicans have put forth an insufficient and divisive resolution that advances their extreme anti-choice agenda and diminishes a woman’s right to choose,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

The House also passed a bill titled the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which states that “any infant born alive after an abortion” has the same legal protections as any other individual who may be a patient at a healthcare facility. The legislation also includes criminal penalties for health providers who don’t provide lifesaving care.

But these kinds of situations are “exceedingly rare” in the case of an abortion, according to Dr. Jenny Villavicencio, the lead for equity transformation at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “In fact, there are very few case reports of something like this happening.” And she said this type of legislation “assumes that the physicians and caretaker healthcare providers that are involved in the case would not do everything that is ethically and medically required of them in that scenario.”

“These are really tough, really complex situations that politicians are trying to turn into black and white issues. The vast majority of times in which something like this might happen is not in the context of a needed abortion. It’s in the context of a devastating pregnancy loss,” Villavicencio told Grid.

However, Roger Severino, vice president for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, called the Born-Alive legislation a “common sense bill” and an “important first step.”

“It draws the maximum contrast between the radical pro-abortion left,” Severino told Grid, adding, “How can you possibly say you’re for human rights when you won’t protect a child born alive?”

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who voted for both the Born-Alive Act and the measure condemning anti-abortion facilities, has floated options that she says appeal to centrists, such as ensuring access to birth control. “If you can reduce pregnancies, you can reduce the need or want for women to have abortions, for example, a very common-sense pragmatic point of view,” she said in a Jan. 8 interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The question for this Congress might be whether the anti-abortion groups that supported the last two House measures could get on board with those types of solutions too.

Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.