“Appalling.” Thus did Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and chair of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life activities, succinctly describe the U.S. Senate’s failure on Jan. 29 to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives last fall and which proposed to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, failed to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster and proceed to a final floor vote.The tally was 51 in favor and 46 against. Two pro-choice Republicans voted against the bill, while three pro-life Democratic senators voted for it.
The pro-life movement should prioritize expanding its reach across party lines.
Why 20 weeks? Supporters of the measure have cited medical studies showing that a fetus can feel pain at that point in its development. Additionally, medical advances have pushed back the viability boundary for premature births to 22 weeks in some cases. But even federal legislation outlawing abortions after 20 weeks would leave the United States as an outlier compared to the standards of almost all other developed nations. In most member countries of the European Union, for example, abortion is illegal after 12 weeks except under specific circumstances. These include risk of death or serious illness for the mother. Pro-choice absolutists in the United States are defending a status quo considered extreme in all but six other countries: Canada, China, the Netherlands, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.
The hardline approach to this issue by the 46 senators who voted to keep abortion legal past 20 weeks is not even representative of the pro-choice base in this country. A January 2018 Marist poll found that more than three in four Americans, including six in 10 who identify as pro-choice, oppose access to abortion after the first three months of a pregnancy except in extreme cases.
A January 2018 Marist poll found that three in four Americans oppose access to abortion after the first three months of a pregnancy.
The Republican leadership in the Senate clearly knew that the abortion bill had little chance of passing. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they brought it to a vote simply to highlight the political positions of pro-choice Democrats in red-leaning states. They wanted to remind pro-life voters in those states that their elected senators favored legal abortion. But amid the partisan political maneuvering, three true profiles in courage could be found: Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, all of whom bucked their party and voted for the bill. They deserve the full-throated support of every pro-life American.
The most effective tactical response the Democrats could adopt in the face of Republicans using abortion as a wedge issue in close races would be to stop insisting on a pro-choice position as a litmus test for candidates. Sadly, this is something the Democratic Party is unwilling to do. This refusal among many in the party to accept, or even discuss, any legal restrictions on abortion at all reveals an absolutism that is both an affront to justice and a serious impediment to any attempt at bipartisanship.
As the failure of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act clearly shows, bipartisanship will be absolutely necessary to pass any meaningful federal legislation that changes our current stalemate on abortion. The pro-life movement should prioritize expanding its reach across party lines. It is the only way to bring the possibility of lasting legal protections for unborn children closer to reality.