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GOP renews abortion battle with eyes on the Supreme Court

This week Republicans passed a bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, which House Speaker John Boehner called the "most pro-life legislation” to ever come before the House. The bill depends on a recent study that found that a small fraction of babies born at 22 weeks can survive. NewsHour political director Lisa Desjardins reports on why the bill is on the GOP agenda.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This week, the U.S. House of Representatives saw another fiery health care debate, this time focused on abortion.

    Our political director, Lisa Desjardins, reports from Capitol Hill on how Republicans hope to the familiar debate into a new gear, and how Democrats hope to stop them.

  • LISA DESJARDINS, Political Director:

    The abortion debate is raging anew in Washington over an old question, the question of viability.

    Wednesday, on a nearly party-line vote, House Republicans passed a bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In a majority of states right now, it's legal at 24 weeks or later.

    Republican leaders like House Speaker Boehner crowed about the bill.

    REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: HR-36 is the most pro-life legislation to ever come before this body.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The bill focuses on the question of when does a fetus feel pain, something that is under debate. That's not new. What is new is another medical question. When can a fetus survive outside the womb?

    This recent study in "The New England Journal of Medicine" concludes that, with medical intervention, at 22 weeks, a small fraction can survive with no impairments or disabilities.

    Republican Representative Diane Black of Tennessee helped shepherd the 20-week bill through the House.

    REP. DIANE BLACK, (R) Tennessee: As a nurse and someone who's been in nursing for over 40 years, when I first came into nursing back in 1969, if a baby was born at 37 weeks, we were concerned, because we didn't have the medical capabilities to help that baby to survive. And now we see babies that are being born at 20 weeks.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    But as Black and other Republicans push for additional abortion bans, Democrats like Diana DeGette of Colorado push back. DeGette, who has introduced bills to defend abortion access, argues that the 20-week ban is unconstitutional and the question of viability at 20 weeks misconstrued.

    REP. DIANA DEGETTE, (D) Colorado: Very few women have abortions after 20 weeks. And, generally, when that happens, it's because there is some very serious fetal abnormality that's going to affect the health of the woman. So what this bill really does is, it says politicians are going to substitute their judgment in those very few cases for the judgment of the woman, in consultation with her family and her physician.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    To DeGette and abortion supporters, this bill is another assault on the rights of women to decide for themselves.

    The 20-week abortion ban has little chance of becoming federal law anytime soon, with tough hurdles in the Senate and a guaranteed White House veto. But this week's House vote is more than just symbolic. Conservatives have a very particular focus for their targets.

    That target sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Drew Halfmann studies abortion politics at the University of California at Davis.

    DREW HALFMANN, University of California, Davis: Well, it's very difficult to move public opinion. But public opinion isn't really what makes abortion policy. Abortion policy is made by the Supreme Court in the United States. And in some ways, this discussion about late abortions has an audience of one, Justice Kennedy.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Over the last two decades, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has cast deciding votes on both sides of the abortion debate, tilting the 5-4 balance to uphold abortion access in some cases and to allow restrictions on things like partial-birth abortion.

    If a case does get to the Supreme Court, anti-abortion groups are hoping that the passage of a 20-week abortion ban by the House might influence Justice Kennedy's vote.

  • DREW HALFMANN:

    In cases about partial-birth abortion, so-called partial-birth abortion, he was the key voter in that decision. So, in many ways, this discussion about fetal pain and so forth is really directed at Justice Kennedy, in an attempt to get the abortion issue in front of the court again.

  • WOMAN:

    The yeas are 242. The nays are 184, with one voting present. The bill is passed.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The bill has one more audience, 2016 Republican voters, as the party hopes to regain the White House, and with it more direct say on the composition of the Supreme Court.

    Lisa Desjardins, PBS NewsHour, Capitol Hill.

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