MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The House passed a bill today to ban many abortions later in pregnancy. For Republicans, the bill is a response to last month's murder conviction of a Pennsylvania abortion doctor. For Democrats, it's a chance to accuse Republicans of continuing what they call a war on women.
One thing it's not, says NPR's Julie Rovner, is a bill likely to become law anytime soon.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The legislation would ban nearly all abortions starting 20 weeks after fertilization. Congressman John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican who is also a doctor, says there's a reason for that timing.
REP. JOHN FLEMING: At least at 20 weeks, maybe sooner, the baby feels pain. And so, I would just submit to you today, Mr. Speaker, that this bill is not just about abortion. This is about pain. It's about torture to that young life.
ROVNER: Now, that contention that fetuses can feel pain starting at 20 weeks is hotly disputed. But it's been used as a justification to pass similar bills in multiple states over the past several years. House Speaker John Boehner says House leaders are bringing a federal bill to the floor now to capitalize on the publicity surrounding last month's murder conviction of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: After this Kermit Gosnell trial and some of the horrific acts that were going on, a vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill. And so do I.
ROVNER: Democrats, however, say there's one huge and glaring problem with the bill: It's unconstitutional. Jerrold Nadler of New York is the ranking member of the Constitution Subcommittee.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: The bill bans abortions prior to 20 weeks. Since Roe v. Wade, it has been well-settled law that no bill is constitutional that bans abortions before viability, which is later than that.
ROVNER: Most experts agree that viability begins somewhere around 23 weeks, depending how you count. But Democrats are using this bill to make a larger point as well: that Republicans are continuing this year where they left off last year, attacking the rights of women.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a congresswoman from Florida but also chair of the Democratic National Committee.
REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: This bill is extreme, an unprecedented reach into women's lives, and a clear indication that the well-being of women in this country is not something that Republicans care to protect.
ROVNER: And Republicans, perhaps inadvertently, played into Democrats' hands. Last week, during committee consideration of the abortion ban, its sponsor, Arizona Republican Trent Franks, tried to fend off an amendment that would have provided an exception in the bill for victims of rape or incest. He said this.
REP. TRENT FRANKS: You know, the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.
ROVNER: Franks later said he was trying to say that most women who get pregnant as a result of rape have abortions well before they're six months pregnant. But the PR damage was done. Republican leaders late last week decided not to let Franks manage his own bill on the floor. Instead, they turned to Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, a longtime anti-abortion voice. And in an interview today with MSNBC, she noted leaders made another change as well.
REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN: The bill has been amended which does allow the exceptions of rape and incest, and the life of the mother. And that was the appropriate step to take.
ROVNER: But Democrats were shocked at the choice of Blackburn to handle the bill. She's not even a member of the Judiciary Committee that considered it. New York's Louise Slaughter is co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus.
REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: And if that is not PR, I don't know what is. And if that is not simply trying to fool you, I don't know what else that is.
ROVNER: But Republican leaders couldn't have chosen a woman from the Judiciary Committee because the Republicans on the panel are all male.
Still, today was likely all for show. The Senate is not expected to take up the bill. And President Obama yesterday issued a veto threat against it.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.