Key House Republicans fail to vote for sex-selective abortion measure

Among the Republicans voting against the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) was Ron Paul of Texas, a gynecologist by trade. The necessary majority was thus avoided.

Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX)

An effort by Republicans in the House of Representatives to outlaw abortions based on gender failed in a vote on May 31. The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), H.R. 3541, of 2012 would ban sex-selective abortions, the victims of whom are overwhelmingly female.  The bill's author, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said before the vote that whatever the outcome, the point would be made that "When people vote on this, the world will know where they really stand."

The bill was defeated in a 246-168 vote. Even while that is a clear majority of the House, Republicans called up the bill under a suspension of parliamentary that limits debate and requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass. In this case, it would have required more support from Democrats. Twenty Democrats voted for the bill, while seven Republicans opposed it. The bill would have needed 30 more ‘yeas’ to pass. Republicans voting against the bill were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Robert Dold (Ill.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), and Ron Paul (Texas).  

Democrats voting in favor of it were Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), John Barrow (Ga.), Dan Boren (Okla.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Jerry Costello (Ill.), Mark Critz (Pa.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), John Garamendi (Calif.), Tim Holden (Pa.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Daniel Lipinski (Ill.), Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.), Silvestre Reyes (Texas), Mike Ross (Ark.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.). Republicans could attempt to pass the bill a second time on a simple majority vote.

A favorite of libertarians and the Tea Party, Congressman Paul’s vote came as a surprise to some, even though he has been a vocal pro-life advocate in the past. On the Twitter account of Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host and darling of the Tea Party, there were comments critical of Paul’s vote.  A tweet from one of Loesch’s listeners said, “This is where I split with Paul domestically. Protection of life left to the states is a cop-out.”  Another wrote, “Did u expect anything else from him?”, while a third wrote, “His position is that it is a state issue.”

Under the legislation, anyone who performs or pressures someone into getting an abortion based on the sex or race of the fetus would face five years in prison. Physicians and medical personnel who do not report suspected sex-selective abortions would also face a year in prison and a fine. The woman having the abortion would be exempt from prosecution. An earlier version of the bill also made it illegal to abort a fetus based on race.

Even while information on sex-selective abortion in the United States is inconclusive, in House debate  before the bill passed, Republicans said it is female fetuses that are most often targeted for abortion, amounting to “gendercide” and a “war on women.” Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) said in a pre-vote debate on May 30, “There can be no rights for women if we don’t allow them the right to life.”  

Republicans hoped to force Democrats to go along with the measure, or put them in the position of having to explain why they shot down a bill Republicans said was designed to protect women. For the most part Democrats held the party line, decrying the measure as political theatre and voting against it. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters on May 31 that Americans find abortions based on gender “pretty repulsive.” “This is an important issue to the American people,” he said. “And our members feel strongly about it. That’s why it’s being brought to the floor.”

Abortion based on sex is more common in some South and East Asian countries, such as India. Research by Columbia University economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund also found evidence of sex selection in Chinese, Indian and South Korean-American families who had already had a daughter. Their findings were cited in the bill. The measure drew particular ire from some Asian American groups who were concerned that it would lead to particular discrimination against Asian-American women seeking abortions.

"We are the only advanced country left in the world that still doesn't restrict sex-selection abortion in any way," said Congressman Franks, the bill’s author. He had collided with abortion-rights groups recently over a bill he supports to ban abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Franks and others say there is evidence of sex-selection abortions in the United States among certain ethnic groups from countries where there is a traditional preference for sons, such as China and India. The bill notes that while there is no federal law against sex-selective abortions, countries such as India and China, where the practice has contributed to lopsided boy-girl ratios, have enacted bans on the practice.

Republicans had been besieged by Democratic claims that they are waging a war on women, and so struck at their colleagues across the aisle by depicting the vote as a women's rights issue. "It is violence against women," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., of abortions of female fetuses. "This is the real war on women."

The White House, most Democrats, abortion rights groups and some Asian-American organizations opposed the bill, saying it could lead to racial profiling of Asian-American women and subject doctors who do not report suspected sex-selection abortions to criminal charges. "The administration opposes gender discrimination in all forms, but the end result of this legislation would be to subject doctors to criminal prosecution if they fail to determine the motivations behind a very personal and private decision," White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith said in a statement. "The government should not intrude in medical decisions or private family matters in this way."

In an interview on MSNBC, Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX) echoed the concerns of abortion proponents in and out of her party. Jackson Lee said that despite what she called “unanimous support” for preventing sex-selective abortions, she feared that women would be physically removed from abortion providers' installations if PRENDA had been passed. “I think the next act will be dragging women out of patient rooms into the streets and screaming over their bodies as they get dragged out of getting access to women’s health care,” she said.

Speaking to Thomas Roberts of MSNBC, Jackson Lee said “That’s what I feel like is occurring today with the legislation that is on the floor. Thomas, first of all, there is bipartisan and unilateral and unanimous support that we should not have agenda-based abortions for the sake of getting one gender over another. That’s a human, humane and humanitarian issue that none of us quarrel with.” The bill is "Draconian,” said Jackson Lee, adding “We’re going back to the days of coat hangers. That’s what they want to do — they want to criminalize doctors because what that says is how do you know that a doctor is engaged in helping a woman abort because of the particular gender of the fetus?”



Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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