The House of Representatives failed to pass the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA). The bill originally would have banned abortions based on the race or gender of the child. PRENDA should have easily passed through the Republican-led House, but it was derailed by partisan politics and the debate du jour over the "war on women."
PRENDA was on track for certain (albeit partisan) passage by the House. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) sponsored PRENDA to make it illegal for women to have an abortion because of either the race or sex of the child. The bill had 98 cosponsors. But just as the Judiciary Committee was finalizing the bill, Democrats began accusing Republicans of waging a "war on women." Debates over contraception, state legislative fights over ultrasound bills, and Rush Limbaugh's ad hominem attack on Sandra Fluke gave resonance to Democratic charges at the same time that PRENDA was approved by the Judiciary Committee and reported to the House.
Last week, the Republican leadership announced that PRENDA would come up for a vote. But there was an important catch. The bill would no longer include a ban on race-based abortion, and it would be considered under a suspension of the rules. Suspension is a procedure designed for noncontroversial legislation: Time for debate is limited, and a two-thirds majority is required for passage. According to Republican rules, PRENDA did not qualify for suspension because more than one-third of the Judiciary Committee voted against the bill. But the Republican leadership used its prerogative to waive this rule and bring the bill up for a suspension vote. The leadership, however, said that PRENDA had to be amended so that it was about only sex-based abortion, not race.
Franks said on the House floor that he believed that race should have remained in the bill.
"I believe with all of my heart that this bill should also prohibit race-targeted abortion as it did when the bill was first introduced," Franks said. "It is my hope that by protecting unborn children from being aborted based on their sex that one day very soon we will also recognize the humanity and justice of protecting unborn children regardless of their race or color as well, and simply because we recognize them as fellow human beings."
Franks told the Christian Post that the suspension of the rules procedure was used to limit tactics by opponents.
"In part, it's so that the really left-wing pro-abortion groups cannot demagogue the issue and make it something else than it really is," Franks said. "They can't add false amendments. They can't add a motion to recommit which hides the issue. They simply have to vote yes or no."
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) voted against the bill because he favored a complete ban on abortion, not a bill that singled out the reason for it. On his Facebook page, Amash questioned why the bill was considered under suspension.
"It's interesting that Republican leadership put this bill on the suspension calendar, which means it needed a two-thirds majority to pass rather than a simple majority. Republicans did this knowing that it would get a simple majority but not a two-thirds majority," Amash said.
A planned failure?
Steven Ertelt, founder of LifeNews.Com tweeted Thursday that the suspension procedure was used, in part, for partisan purposes. In addition to the procedural advantages (fast track and ability to vote on it again later), suspension also was used to "hang on Democrats when they defeat it" and "to expose Dems."
Suspension allows Republicans to blame Democrats for PRENDA's failure, something that would not have happened under a simple majority. The final vote of 246 to 168 would normally have been enough to pass PRENDA, but the bill failed to cross the two-thirds threshold. Twenty Democrats voted for the bill; seven Republicans voted against it.
Democrats who opposed PRENDA charged that in addition to being unconstitutional (because it banned abortion prior to viability), the bill would lead to fewer abortions not based on sex-selection. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said that the bill gives relatives the power to sue to stop an abortion they alleged was based on sex-selection. Medical employees would risk prison for not reporting any abortion they suspected of being based on sex.
"The more information the doctor has, and the more he shares with his patient, the greater the risk that someone could argue that the abortion was for a prohibited purpose and that he knew it," Nadler said. "Given the severe civil and criminal penalties in this bill, doctors would be forced to police their patients, read their patients' minds, and conceal information from their patients. The failure to do so would put medical professionals at risk of prosecution and suit."
Suspension also moved the bill quickly to a vote, putting Democrats decrying a "war on women" on the record against a bill that would stop sex-based abortion.
National Right to Life Committee's legislative director Douglas Johnson was one of many who said that Democratic opposition to the bill puts them on the wrong side of any "war against women."
"Those lawmakers who recently have embraced contrived political rhetoric asserting that they are resisting a 'war on women' must reflect on whether they now wish to be recorded as being defenders of the escalating war on baby girls," said Johnson.
GOP opposition to the bill came from a handful of pro-choice Republicans. Two legislators—Rep. Amash and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)—opposed the bill because they considered it the same as hate crimes legislation.
"Pro-life Americans believe all unborn life is precious and should be protected. Therefore we should be troubled by legislation that singles out abortions motivated by a 'politically incorrect' reason for special federal punishment," Paul said during the debate. "To my conservative colleagues who support this bill: What is the difference in principle between a federal law prohibiting 'sex selection' abortions and federal hate crimes laws? After all, hate crime laws also criminalize thoughts by imposing additional stronger penalties when a crime is motivated by the perpetrator's animus toward a particular race or gender."
Part of a new approach
PRENDA represents a new tactic from some pro-life activists and thinkers who believe that they should promote laws that limit abortion in cases that the public finds most objectionable, starting with sex selection. According to a March 2006 Zogby poll of over 30,000 Americans, sex-based abortion is opposed by 86 percent of the public; only 10 percent believe that it should be legal. Four states have laws against sex-based abortion (Arizona, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Illinois). Arizona also outlaws abortion based on the race of the child.
Americans United for Life Action president Charmaine Yoest said, "Americans—whether pro-life or pro-abortion—overwhelmingly oppose this barbaric practice that undermines the dignity of the human person and agree that sex-selection abortion should be illegal."
Planned Parenthood also opposes sex-based abortion, though it believes that the focus should be on the causes of gender discrimination, not restrictions on women's reasoning for having an abortion.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said, "Planned Parenthood opposes sex-selection abortion. But [PRENDA] fails to address the real causes of inequality and health disparities, and instead takes aim at the very communities it claims to help. Racism and gender discrimination are serious issues, and the solution is not to cast suspicion on doctors that serve communities facing the greatest health disparities, many of which are minority communities."
Sex-selection is a global problem. In some regions, such as parts of India and China, gendercide has resulted in distorted gender ratios. In the U.S., sex-selection is rare, but there is some evidence of sex-selection, particularly for the second or third child or among some immigrant populations.
The timing of the vote by the Republican leadership was serendipitous, for just days after the vote was announced and only a day before it took place, an undercover video allegedly showing Planned Parenthood workers encouraging women seeking abortions for sex-selection was released by Live Action, a pro-life organization that uses videos and other media for pro-life causes. Planned Parenthood responded to the video, charging that it was selectively edited.