POLITICS

U.S. House Passes Abortion Ban That Could Challenge Roe V. Wade [UPDATE]

05/13/2015 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015

Kate Williams was 21 weeks pregnant in 2011 when she had an ultrasound anatomy scan to check on the progress of her baby. The news was not good: Her unborn son had Potter syndrome, a fatal condition in which the kidneys fail to develop in the womb.

The doctor told Williams, then 31, that her baby had no kidneys and no bladder and would not develop lungs, and there was very little amniotic fluid left to support his life. She was told she could either choose to induce labor right then and go through a full delivery, only to have the baby die in the process, or she could undergo anesthesia and have an abortion procedure.

"I was absolutely devastated to get that news," Williams told The Huffington Post in an interview. "I called my regular OB-GYN to discuss with her if there was any chance this might not be true. But she looked at the ultrasounds and told me, 'No, this is the situation.'"

Williams, a retail store manager with a 9-month-old son at the time, decided to have the abortion procedure to avoid having to go through the labor and delivery. Because she lives in Philadelphia, where there are abortion providers who are trained to perform the second-trimester procedure, and because the abortion was covered by her insurance, she could afford to make that choice. "If I wasn't in Philadelphia, who knows where I would have had to go," she said.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that bans the procedure Williams chose to have. The so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act aims to prohibit doctors from performing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger. There is no exception for severe fetal anomalies, and the bill requires a neonatal doctor to try to save the fetus if there is any chance it could survive outside the womb.

Republicans claim the 20-week limit is based on the disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain at that point in their development.

"This is a vote all of us will remember forever, and it will be considered in the annals of history, and I believe the counsels of eternity itself," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the author of the bill, on the House floor Wednesday. "But it shouldn’t be such a hard vote. Protecting little pain-capable unborn children and their mothers is not a Republican issue, or a Democrat issue. It is a test of our basic humanity and who we are as a human family."

The bill passed in the House Wednesday afternoon by a vote of 242 to 184.

House Republicans tried to pass the bill earlier this year, but they had to cancel the vote unexpectedly after a group of GOP women voiced their concerns that the rape exception was too narrow. The original bill required a woman to have reported her rape to the police in order to qualify for the exemption, but lawmakers have since tweaked it to say that a woman who has been raped must seek counseling or medical care at some point in the 48 hours before the abortion.

Anti-abortion activists hope the 20-week abortion ban will be their opening to challenge and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark abortion rights decision. The high court ruled in 1973 that laws cannot interfere with a woman's right to have an abortion before the fetus would be viable outside the womb, around the 22- to 24-week mark. This legislation would establish a limit at a point several weeks earlier than that. "Our belief is that this bill, in particular, would be upheld by the court," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List.

Abortions after 20 weeks are extremely rare, accounting for only about 1 percent of all abortions. Opponents of the legislation worry that it will hurt women like Williams who discover severe medical problems late into their pregnancies.

"This bill would deny abortion care to a woman even if her health care provider determined that abortion care was her best medical option," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. "It would also force a woman to wait until severe medical conditions became life-threatening before she could obtain the abortion care she needed."

The bill has little chance of becoming law this year. If Senate Democrats fail to block it, President Barack Obama will likely veto it. But the legislation is gaining momentum: Every single 2016 GOP presidential candidate has endorsed it, and 10 Republican-controlled state legislatures have already passed it into law. With a different administration after 2016, the abortion limit could easily become the law of the land.

Williams, who now has two healthy children, said she will be watching the legislation closely as it moves through Congress. "It doesn't make sense to me," she said. "Women in my situation or in any situation should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term."

UPDATE: 5:50 p.m. -- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president, issued the following statement Wednesday evening, following the bill's passage:

This bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, which has protected a woman's constitutional right to privacy for over forty years. The bill puts women's health and rights at risk, undermines the role doctors play in health care decisions, burdens survivors of sexual assault, and is not based on sound science. It also follows a dangerous trend we are witnessing across the country. In just the first three months of 2015, more than 300 bills have been introduced in state legislatures -- on top of the nearly 30 measures introduced in Congress -- that restrict access to abortion. Politicians should not interfere with personal medical decisions, which should be left to a woman, her family and her faith, in consultation with her doctor or health care provider.

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