WASHINGTON - The House is girding for another wrenching debate on abortion after a House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would ban almost all abortions after a fetus reaches the age of 20 weeks.
Several recent court decisions have struck down similar state laws, and the GOP-backed bill has little future in the Democratic-led Senate, but the measure will give House conservatives a rare chance to reaffirm their social issue credentials.
The bill, named the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on a party-line 20-12 vote and could get a vote in the full House as early as next week.
House Republican leaders, concentrating on budgetary and jobs bills and investigating administration scandals, have largely avoided contentious social issues such as abortion, but anti-abortion conservatives have been spurred by the recent conviction of a Philadelphia abortion provider, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, for killing three babies born alive at his clinic.
"The terrifying facts uncovered during the course of the trial ... and successive reports of similar atrocities committed across the country, remind us how an atmosphere of insensitivity can lead to horrific brutality," said committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Bill sponsor Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and others argued that there is evidence - a contention Democrats say is unproven - that fetuses can feel pain after five months, justifying a ban on later abortions.
A federal court in May overturned a 20-week abortion ban in Arizona, saying that the law violated a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable. Viability is generally considered to start at 24 weeks.
Some nine other states have enacted similar bans and have faced court challenges.
The National Right to Life Committee said the other state laws and the Franks bill are based on an NRLC model based on evidence that the unborn have the capacity to experience pain. It noted that the 20-week post-fertilization age used in these measures is equivalent to 22 weeks of pregnancy under a widely employed dating system.
The leaders of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said that at a time when voters want Congress to concentrate on jobs and the economy, "the House majority has instead once again decided to reignite its war on women."
Democrats pointed out that all 22 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are men.
Franks and his allies, said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue, "are mounting a clear campaign to spur a Supreme Court case that will dismantle the protections established by Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made most abortions legal.
Franks generated another controversy during the committee debate when, in response to a Democratic amendment making an exception to the abortion ban in cases of rape and incest, he stated that incidences of rape resulting in pregnancy "are very low."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the statement was "astonishing" and Democrats quickly compared it to the statement of former Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., whose campaign for a Senate seat in Missouri collapsed last year after he stated that the female body is capable of stopping pregnancies in the case of "legitimate rape."
Franks later said that what he intended to say was the later-term abortions, such as those banned under his bill, were rarely the result of rapes.
The bill does provide for an exception to save a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical illness arising from the pregnancy, but Republicans rejected Democratic amendments to expand those exceptions to include rape, incest or non-pregnancy related illnesses.