In early evening on June 18, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 228 to 196 for a nationwide ban on abortions after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Though there is little chance the legislation will be approved or even voted on in the Democratic Senate, and none that it will be signed into law by President Obama, the June 18 vote has the potential to trigger the most dramatic shift in the abortion debate since the first election of a proabortion president back in 1992. In stark contrast to the recent liberal theme of attack on the “extreme” pro-life willingness to protect pregnancies caused by of rape and incest, from now on an unavoidable topic in elections of the future will be the extreme implications of the Left’s untiring advocacy of abortion on demand.
The House’s vote underlines the extent to which the abortion debate has become polarized along party lines. Republican representatives voted 222 to 6 for the late-term ban, Democrats 190 to 6 against it. Many Democrats who represent socially conservative heartland districts felt compelled by some combination of party loyalty and ideological purity to cast this vote. Now, facing independent advertising expenditures being prepared by several pro-life and social-conservative groups, they will find themselves asked to explain why they favor a right to abort viable babies — including in the ninth month of pregnancy — in Gosnell-like surroundings. Judging from attempts within the last few days at such explanations by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Colorado representative Diana DeGette, co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, even the most sophisticated pro-abortion Democrats are utterly unprepared to answer such questions.
The vote was the first time since Roe v. Wade that either house of congress has voted on a national late-term-abortion ban, yet days before the vote there was no certainty it would happen. Its last-minute metamorphosis from a much narrower bill is reflected in its formal title, “District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” It had been opposed at various points by the House GOP leadership and elements of the pro-life movement, and it went on the calendar with just a few days’ notice. Many pro-lifers, inspired by the Gosnell case and other abortion-clinic scandals, were eager to prepare for the vote with extensive congressional hearings. Desirable as such hearings were and are in the larger battle for public opinion, the unexpected nature of the issue’s arrival on the House floor caught many Democrats flatfooted, with zero ability to minimize or obfuscate the starkness of their vote to permit the killing of viable babies.
The one thing certain about social issues is their unpredictability. In this latest surprise a social-conservative movement that has been on the defensive — with elite opinion universally declaring its irrelevance and some in the Republican establishment calling for the removal of these issues from the party’s self-definition — has suddenly been presented with a recorded vote that could put its foes in the position of defending a practice that most American voters find indefensible.
— Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell are president and policy director of the Washington-based American Principles Project.