How D.C. Became the Frontline of the Abortion Wars

Posted on May 25, 2012

The Atlantic, May 25, 2012 by Nicole Allan

Its quirky governance relationship with Congress makes liberal Washington an attractive rhetorical target for pet social conservative causes.

Alabama, Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Georgia — politically, these states have much in common. All have Republican-dominated statehouses, have swung red in recent presidential elections (Indiana in 2008 being the sole exception), and have constitutional or statutory bans on gay marriage.

So what does the District of Columbia, arguably the most liberal city in the nation, which for the past 40 years has elected only Democratic mayors and presidents, and which legalized gay marriage several years ago, have in common with these crimson states?

Abortion regulation, as it turns out. D.C. is the latest state to consider a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, based on the disputed claim that that’s when fetuses begin to feel pain. Except D.C. is not a state, and it’s not doing the considering. The story of how the District found itself on the front lines of the abortion wars is a lesson in the irony of D.C.’s governance model and in the evolving strategy of the anti-abortion rights movement.

As a constitutional protectorate of Congress, the District of Columbia elects a local government and a non-voting Congressional delegate, but Congress ultimately holds the reins; it can veto any laws passed by the D.C. Council and votes on its budget every year as part of the federal appropriations process. In a divided Congress, this set-up can turn spending into a bargaining chip, subject to partisan fluctuations and last-minute, high-stakes deals.

Take last year’s budget stand-off between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner, who eked out a compromise hours before a government shutdown. One of the primary logjams was abortion, and not just funding for Planned Parenthood. Boehner wanted to revive a longstanding rider that barred D.C. from using local Medicaid funds to pay for abortions. Obama had managed to strip this restriction from the budget in 2009, when he had a Democratic Congress at his back, but Boehner’s delegation had made reinstituting the rider a top priority for their first year in office. According to the Washington Post, Obama refused to cave on Planned Parenthood but eventually told Boehner, “John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it.” This concession secured a deal, though it enraged District residents. Mayor Vincent Gray was one of a group of city officials arrested several days later for protesting the rider outside the Capitol.

The victory emboldened abortion opponents, and in January of this year, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) introduced the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) declared its top legislative priority for 2012. While most states restrict later-term abortions, the standard threshold has hinged on when a fetus can survive outside the womb — a decision made on a case-by-case basis but generally beginning around 24 weeks. Starting in 2010, the NRLC launched a state-by-state campaign to drop this threshold to 20 weeks by shifting the conversation from viability to when a fetus begins to feel pain.

While mainstream medical organizations peg this development to 24 weeks or later, after nerve functions are in place, the NRLC argues that it occurs a full month earlier. Over the past two years, the “fetal-pain” strategy has secured 20-week bans in seven states, with more likely to follow suit. The D.C. proposal, which lacks an exception for rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, and the mother’s health, is one of the more extreme versions.

In a divided Congress, D.C. spending can turn into a bargaining chip, subject to partisan fluctuations and last-minute, high-stakes deals.

Franks held a hearing on the bill last week, at which he came under fire for denying D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton a chance to testify. In a statement, Norton pointed out the irony of small-government Republicans inflating a local issue into a federal one: “[Franks and his co-sponsors] violated one of their most sacrosanct principles — that the reach of the federal government must be contained — by trying to move the federal government into the last place the founders would have sanctioned — local government decisions.”

Abortion is not the only local issue Congress has intervened on. Ilir Zherka, executive director of statehood advocacy group DC Vote, sees the District as a sort of experimental staging ground for budding social conservative campaigns. “Whether it’s marriage equality, guns, medical marijuana, abortion, or needle exchange programs,” Zherka says, “a bunch of issues get played out here, because national conservative groups use the District either as a launching pad for their next social battle or as a punching bag, to make rhetorical points.”

For the anti-abortion lobby, the District is a smart rhetorical target. Since Roe v. Wade drew a federal line on abortion, the debate has moved to the states. But District-specific federal laws give socially conservative members of the House and Senate a chance to shine national attention on the issues and to test out new methods of restriction. Mitt Romney has also come out in favor of the bill.

Hence the NRLC’s commitment to the 20-week ban in D.C., despite the unlikelihood that the Senate will pass it (the bill is still in committee in the House). At this point, the “fetal pain” argument is still considered marginal, viable only in deeply conservative states. But debating the issue in Washington grants the idea more legitimacy. And if the Senate tips Republican this fall, the bill may well get a second wind.


Posted in: D.C.