WASHINGTON — After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.
Yet House Republicans seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over abortion by bringing to the floor Tuesday a measure that would prohibit the procedure after 22 weeks of pregnancy — the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in either chamber in a decade.
The bill stands no chance of becoming law, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. Republican leaders acknowledge that its purpose is to satisfy vocal elements of their base who have renewed a push for new restrictions on reproductive rights, even if those issues harmed the party’s reputation with women in 2012.
Keenly aware of the fraught position they are in, Republican leaders have moved to insulate themselves from Democrats’ criticism that they are opening a new front in the “war on women.” Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican from Tennessee, will manage the debate on the bill when it reaches the House floor, a role that would customarily go to the sponsor, Representative Trent Franks, Republican from Arizona.
And in a last-minute revision, House leaders slipped in a provision that would allow for an exception in cases of rape or incest, but only if the woman had reported the crime.
Among Republicans, the conservative majority in the House is hardly alone in concluding that aggressive new restrictions on reproductive rights are politically wise. All across the country this year, Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed some of the toughest abortion laws in a decade. Many of these flagrantly conflict with Supreme Court precedent, and many are being challenged in the courts.
Already this year, Arkansas and North Dakota have enacted bans similar to the one the House will vote on, which would prohibit abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy based on the scientifically disputed theory that fetuses at that stage of development can feel pain. Both states then went on to approve even more restrictive laws.
Advocates on both sides of the issue say that similar so-called fetal-pain bills stand a reasonable chance of passing soon in South Carolina and Wisconsin. And last week, Governor Rick Perry of Texas added abortion restrictions to the Legislature’s agenda.
Much of the movement in recent weeks can be linked to the outcry over the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions.
His case, coming on top of successful efforts to curtail reproductive rights in the states, has reinvigorated the antiabortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said.
“These laws are flying through,” said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports access to abortions. “The attention has really been at the state level around abortion issues. Now what you also see at the federal level is very disturbing, and it shows that abortion opponents are very emboldened.”
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the House bill “the most significant legislation on abortion” at the federal level since 2003, when Congress passed a ban on a type of late-term procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.