WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday rejected Republican legislation banning abortions based on the sex of the fetus in a vote that keeps the election-year spotlight on an emotionally charged issue.
The “Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act,” would have subjected doctors to a five-year prison term if they performed abortions intended to select gender. Medical and mental health professionals also would have had to report suspected violations to authorities or face a one-year sentence.
The mostly party-line vote of 246-168 fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passing this bill.
Republicans scheduled the vote a week after a public opinion poll showed that a near-record 50% of Americans described themselves as “pro-life,” a label for those who back legal protections for fetuses, including outlawing abortion.
The Gallup poll showed that those describing themselves as “pro-choice” — those favoring the right of women to choose whether to bring a pregnancy to term — had declined to a record low 41%, compared to 47% in July 2011.
Democrats attacked the legislation, portraying it as another example of a “war on women” by Republicans, which also included votes against equal pay and some healthcare benefits.
Democrats decried the bill as a “backdoor attempt” to stifle all abortions. But the vote put them in a tricky position by exposing them to potential campaign attacks for appearing to support a widely abhorred practice.
Republicans, also jockeying for the women’s vote in November elections, argued that the “real war against women” is in an increasing number of abortions of female fetuses due to preferences for boys among some ethnic groups.
“Simply put, what this bill does is give baby girls the same chance at life as baby boys,” said Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn during Wednesday’s debate on the House floor. “A vote against ending sex-selection abortion is a vote in favor of gender bias and female gendercide.”
SEX SELECTION INCREASING
A 2008 study of census data by two Columbia University professors found an elevated rate of male births to American parents of Chinese, Indian and Korean descent, especially when their previous pregnancies produced females.
The researchers, Lena Edlund and Douglas Almond, said the statistical deviation shows evidence of prenatal sex selection among these groups, who are importing their cultural preferences for male offspring to the United States.
Sex-selective abortions are more common in China, India and South Korea, where the cultural and economic status of sons is elevated over daughters. In traditional Chinese culture, for example, parents often depend on a son for financial support in old age.
The measure drew swift rebukes from abortion-rights groups. They argued it would violate doctor-patient confidentiality and put physicians into the untenable position of trying to determine or surmise whether an abortion is motivated by gender selection. They also said it masked previous Republican efforts to roll back women’s rights to contraception and other forms of health care.
“Republicans in Washington are focused like a laser on taking away women’s rights to basic health care, and today’s House vote is no exception,” said Emily’s List, a group dedicated to electing pro-choice female Democrats to office.
Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said the vote appeared to be an attempt by Republicans to put Democrats in a “difficult place.”
“Any interpretation that voting against this bill is therefore for abortions for the purposes of selecting gender, would be wrong. Period,” he said.
House Speaker John Boehner brushed aside suggestions that the vote was a political stunt aimed at luring Democrats into a controversial vote.
“This is an important issue for the American people,” Boehner told reporters on Thursday. “This type of sex-selection, most Americans find pretty repulsive. Our members feel strongly about it, that’s why it’s being brought to the floor.”