Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, a Republican of North Carolina, has been raising concerns about a late-term abortion ban that the House is scheduled to vote on this week, but she said Wednesday afternoon that she will vote for the bill even if it comes to the floor without changes she wants in it.
“I have a very pro-life district, and I’m very pro-life. I will vote for this if it doesn’t change," Ellmers told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "I will vote for this, and I will have to put out an immediate press release saying I really disagree with that reporting language."
Ellmers was referring to the provision in the bill dealing with the very unusual case in which a person is raped and then waits until at least the sixth month of pregnancy to get an abortion. In order to keep this exception from becoming a loophole that would allow late-term abortionists to simply check a box, the victim seeking an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy must report the crime to the authorities. There would not be a reporting requirement during the first five months of pregnancy.
Some pro-life groups were surprised by Ellmers' objections to the bill, but Ellmers insisted on Wednesday that she changed her position because the bill has changed since she last voted on it. “It really isn’t the same as it was last year," Ellmers told me. “It is the most confusing thing I’ve ever seen."
Ellmers is incorrect. The text of the bill that she voted for on June 18, 2013 (you can read it here) included the reporting requirement that she now opposes. Democrats did not make an issue of the reporting requirement in 2013 or during the 2014 elections. In 2014, the issue of late-term abortion actually hurt Democratic Senate candidates.
By creating controversy where none previously existed, Ellmers and other dissenters have ensured that Democrats will attack the reporting requirement. The reporting requirement does not seem, however, to be a significant political vulnerability. A Quinnipiac poll that explicitly mentioned the requirement found that American voters still support the legislation by a 2-1 margin.
Many people who believe for principled or prudential reasons that there should be an exception for abortion in the case of rape do not believe that exception must necessarily extend through the ninth month of pregnancy. For example, late-term abortion bans in liberal New York and Pennsylvania don't include any exception for the case of rape. The New York and Pennsylvania laws take effect just two weeks later than the proposed federal law.
Pro-life groups have focused on banning abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy because by that point infants can feel pain and many can survive long-term if born.
"I'm here because it's easy for me to imagine these babies at 20 to 24 weeks post-fertilization age because they are my patients in the [neo-natal intensive care unit]," Dr. Colleen Malloy of Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine testified before Congress in 2012. "You can see the detail in the face," she said, showing a picture of an ultrasound. "You can see the movements--the 4D ultrasound images that we have now are real time images of babies kicking, moving, sucking their thumb--doing all the things babies do."
As of late Wednesday afternoon it was unclear whether or not House leadership would modify the bill before bringing it to the floor. "My heart is open if we can find some way to make it better," Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who is sponsoring the bill along with Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, told reporters. "But at this point I don't know what that is. There seems to be no consensus as to how we could make it better."
Update: On Wednesday night, House GOP leaders canceled plans to hold a vote on the bill Thursday. Instead, the House will hold a vote on a bill to prohibit federal programs, including Obamacare, from paying for elective abortions with taxpayer money.