WASHINGTON—Republicans in Congress are trying to figure out how to best respond to President Donald Trump’s pro-life call to action in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children,” the president said in his speech to a joint session of Congress. His prepared remarks added “who can feel pain in the mothers womb” after the word “children,” but the audience burst into applause before he could finish the sentence.
Legislation to protect unborn babies who can feel pain passed in the House last year but failed to gain the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would safeguard babies after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. reintroduced the act in January, but the bill hasn’t been brought up in the House yet, which is now under Democratic control. Despite Republican gains in the Senate in last fall’s midterm elections, the measure still probably doesn’t have enough support to break the needed 60-vote threshold in that chamber.
Only about 1.4 percent of abortions happen after 21 weeks, but that has not prevented pro-abortion advocates from pushing expanded access to late-term abortion. In his Tuesday speech, Trump condemned New York state lawmakers who, on the Jan. 22 anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, “cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” The president also blasted recent remarks by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in support of a similar bill in Virginia.
Meanwhile, voters are overwhelmingly on the side of restricting late-term abortion. A new Marist poll showed that about 75 percent of Americans, regardless of whether they identify as pro-life, want abortion restricted to the first trimester of pregnancy.
Pro-life advocates say they hope Congress will capitalize on support from the public and the White House to bring legislation that protects unborn babies to a vote.
On Monday, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called for a unanimous consent vote in the Senate on the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, a bill that would have made it a crime not to give babies who survive abortions the same amount of medical care as any newborn. A unanimous consent vote would have allowed the measure to pass if no one voiced an objection, but Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., blocked the vote.
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., on Wednesday introduced a House version of the Born Alive bill, which also failed to pass by unanimous consent. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said his party will continue to ask for unanimous consent every day for 30 days. “We’ll ask again, and again, and again,” he said. “It’s not a partisan issue—it’s about saving lives.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., a co-sponsor of the Born Alive bill, said that after 30 days he will file a petition to discharge it from committee and bring it to the floor. The move would circumvent Democratic leadership and would put every House member on record on the issue. The catch is that the petition needs 218 signatories.
Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, told me the fight to gain signatures would place pressure on Democrats in competitive districts. But pro-life legislation is unlikely to make it to the floor of the House, where Democrats hold 235 seats to 199 for Republicans.
“Nowadays, when it comes to the life issue, there’s no such thing as bipartisanship for Democrats,” said McClusky, who added that though some Democrats, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, support protections for unborn babies, the party as a whole has moved into extremism on the life issue. “This is not safe, legal, and rare by any means.”
Though passing pro-life legislation in a divided Congress might not be possible, Steven Aden, chief legal officer for Americans United for Life, said he believes Trump’s remarks and renewed pro-life efforts by legislators could make abortion a central issue during the 2020 presidential race.
“Its going to be an interesting 2020 race,” he told me. “Most voters who voted for the president because of the Supreme Court nomination issue—and there were many of them—most of them did so because of the pro-life issue, specifically desiring to see Roe overturned. … I think we’ll see the volume turned up on that as we head into 2020.”