WASHINGTON — Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins currently has her organization going from college campus to college campus, urging students to sign a petition of support for banning abortion at 20 weeks on account that unborn infants can feel pain by that point in their development.
But the reason for the petition is unexpected: Students for Life is forced to petition a pro-life GOP majority in Washington to take up the pro-life movement’s signature anti-abortion legislation, Hawkins says, because the party’s continuing inaction is undermining her organization’s efforts to get students to vote pro-life.
“It certainly doesn’t help us on college campuses, and it certainly doesn’t help us in 2016, when the politicians come back around and want us to get young people out to vote,” she said.
Hawkins said hundreds of students are signing the petition to act on the federal Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which has stalled in the GOP-controlled House since January because of internal divisions in the Republican caucus over its language.
“Hopefully, they can get on this and get it done quickly,” Hawkins said. But after three months, “almost absolutely nothing has gone on,” giving her little confidence the GOP’s internal gridlock behind the bill’s delay will be over before her petition is delivered.
Pro-life groups have found themselves in a bind: The largest pro-life majority in decades they helped elect, which consists of all Republicans save two pro-life Democrats, has been unable to deliver pro-lifers’ legislation.
Yet despite the criticism, GOP leaders continue to remain silent about when the bill will get to the House floor — or even what it will look like.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, informed the Register that Boehner has nothing to announce at this point. The Register has received similar replies from other GOP leaders, declining to comment specifically or even generally upon the state of negotiations.
Even pro-life organizations have ducked talking specifics about the discussions, highlighting the delicacy of the negotiations with Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee and the face of the GOP House members who were responsible for forcing the GOP leadership to withdraw the bill from a floor vote on the day of the March for Life.
Although the House did pass the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, the measure was overshadowed by the success of the rebellion by Ellmers’ group over language requiring women seeking an exception for rape and incest to have reported the circumstances to law enforcement previously.
At the time, when the Register discussed the bill with pro-life leaders in Washington and on Capitol Hill, there was confidence that the difficulties would be ironed out quickly to produce a bill. As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, confidence has given way to vocal frustration.
A group of national pro-life leaders demanded in an April 22 statement that House GOP leaders bring the pain-capable bill to the floor for an “immediate vote.”
“The babies and mothers being targeted by the late-term abortion industry have waited long enough for protection,” said the statement, which was signed by the leaders of Susan B. Anthony List, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, March for Life, Silent No More Awareness Campaign, Priests for Life, Americans United for Life and Students for Life of America.
“It is a simple, compassionate proposal supported by a large majority of Americans, including women and young people,” it continued.
“A vote on this popular, modest bill will serve as a benchmark as to whether the House GOP is serious about protecting unborn babies and women.”
NRLC Counsels Patience
Notably absent from the statement signers was the National Right to Life Committee. NRLC developed the model language for the pain-capable bill, which did not include exceptions for rape and incest that have now derailed the bill.
As of March, 11 states have passed similar pain-capable bills.
Carol Tobias, NRLC’s president, was not able to comment to the Register on any specifics of the House negotiations, but urged patience and confidence in the GOP’s pro-life leadership.
“We know that Speaker Boehner and the House Republican leadership are making every effort to see that a strong, meaningful Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is brought to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives,” Tobias said in a statement. “We believe it is much better to take the time necessary to ensure passage of a strong, meaningful bill. We have full confidence in the pro-life convictions and leadership of Speaker Boehner and the House Republican leadership.”
Sources familiar with discussions — who agreed to speak with the Register on background — paint a complicated portrait of the negotiations, which involve not only trying to forge a compromise acceptable to everyone on the exception language, but also seek to strengthen the bill’s chances of surviving a constitutional challenge on maternal-health arguments.
Also in play: addressing potential unforeseen loopholes around the 20-week ban, such as preventing abortionists from applying anesthesia before dismembering the unborn child and arguing the law does not apply because the anesthetized baby can’t feel pain while being killed.
“There’s a desire not to disappoint people a second time,” said one source, explaining why so little information has emerged.
Rape and Incest Exceptions
Among the proposals sources reported to be now on the table is a controversial idea that would have the woman report the rape or incest that conceived her unborn child to the abortionist, instead of law-enforcement authorities.
In a public break with the silence of other GOP House members, Ellmers told National Journal in mid-April that she would support that language in a bill.
“The demand that it be reported to law enforcement was completely unrealistic and only further victimized the victims of rape, and I think that’s something that we have to be very conscientious about.”
Ellmers, who has been on record previously saying her 21 years in nursing taught her “that every life is a precious gift from God,” also told the news outlet that the bill’s incest exception should also not be limited to minors.
"Incest is incest. There can't really be a cutoff age," she said.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in November 2014, 60% of Americans support the legislation with the reporting requirements to law enforcement, not abortionists, for those seeking a late-term abortion for rape or incest.
And for a pro-life leader like Hawkins, the congresswoman “is just trying to delay the bill even further” by moving the goalposts on incest.
The pro-life undercover investigations of abortion facilities by Lila Rose and her own organization, Hawkins added, give little confidence that abortionists can be trusted to report rape and incest.
“We’ve done the work,” she said. “We’ve gone in, showed statutory rape, made phone calls, then checked back in with state, and they’ve never even reported it, so why would you trust an abortionist to report that?”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.