The legislation, sparked by the murder conviction of a Philadelphia late-term abortion provider, would restrict almost all abortions to the first 20 weeks after conception, defying laws in most states that allow abortions up to when the fetus becomes viable, usually considered to be around 24 weeks.
It mirrors 20-week abortion ban laws passed by some states, and lays further groundwork for the ongoing legal battle that abortion foes hope will eventually result in forcing the Supreme Court to reconsider the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, that made abortion legal.
It passed 228-196, with six Democrats voting for it and six Republicans voting against it.
In the short term, the bill will go nowhere. The Democratic-controlled Senate will ignore it and the White House says the president would veto it if it ever reached his desk. The White House said the measure was "an assault on a woman's right to choose" and "a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade."
But it was a banner day for social conservatives who have generally seen their priorities overshadowed by economic and budgetary issues since Republicans recaptured the House in 2010.
Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, called it "the most important pro-life bill to be considered by the U.S. Congress in the last 10 years."
Marjorie Dannenfeiser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List -- a group that seeks to eliminate abortion -- said the legislation differed significantly from past abortion measures in that it restricts, rather than merely controls, the abortion procedure.
Democrats chided Republicans for taking up a dead-end abortion bill when Congress is doing little to promote jobs and economic growth. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called it "yet another Republican attempt to endanger women. It is disrespectful to women. It is unsafe for families and it is unconstitutional."
Democrats also said the decision by GOP leaders to appease their restless base with the abortion vote could backfire on Republican efforts to improve their standing among women.
"They are going down the same road that helped women elect Barack Obama president of the United States," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to the House. The bill is so egregious to women, said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., that women are reminded that "the last possible thing they ever want to do is leave their health policy to these men in blue suits and red ties."
Democrats repeatedly pointed out that all 23 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee that approved the measure last week on a party-line vote are men.
Republicans countered by assigning women to conspicuous roles in managing the bill on the House floor and presiding over the chamber. Republican women were prominent among those speaking in favor of the legislation.
The bill, said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who was assigned to manage the bill despite not being on the Judiciary Committee, would "send the clearest possible message to the American people that we do not support more Gosnell-like abortions."
The Republican leadership gave the green light to the abortion bill after social conservatives coalesced around the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor who was recently sentenced to life in prison for what prosecutors said was the murder of three babies delivered alive. Abortion foes said it exemplified the inhumanity of late-term abortions.
"After this Kermit Gosnell trial, (and) some of the horrific acts that were going on, the vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill, and so do I," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Absent from the debate was the bill's main sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who last week sparked a controversy by saying that rape resulted in few pregnancies.
After Franks' remark, which he later modified, Republicans quietly altered the bill to include an exception to the 20-week ban for instances of rape and incest. Democrats still balked, saying the exception would require a woman to prove that she had reported the rape to authorities.
The bill has an exception when a physical condition threatens the life of the mother, but Democratic efforts to include other health exceptions were rebuffed.
The legislation would ban abortions that take place 20 weeks after conception, which is equivalent to 22 weeks of pregnancy.
Some 10 states have passed laws similar to the House bill, and several are facing court challenges. Last month a federal court struck down as unconstitutional Arizona's law, which differs slightly in banning abortion 20 weeks after pregnancy rather than conception.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health research organization that supports abortion rights, in 2009, 1.3 percent of the 1.2 million abortions in the country, about 15,600, occurred 20 weeks after the fetus was conceived.
Supporters of the legislation also contended that fetuses can feel pain after about 20 weeks, and the bill cites extensively from studies agreeing with that conclusion. Opponents say such findings are inconclusive.
Pro-choice groups argued that the 20-week ban, in addition to being unconstitutional, would affect women just at the point of learning of a fetal anomaly or determining that the pregnancy could put the mother's life in danger.
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