Pope Francis, in his historic speech to the U.S. Congress in September, challenged legislative leaders to remember their “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development.” In 2015, with the support and encouragement of a vast and growing pro-life movement, a majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate met this challenge by voting in favor of groundbreaking legislation to protect children from late-term abortion, restrict federal funding of abortion businesses, and uphold the human dignity of the unborn.
These votes were milestones in a year of unprecedented legislative progress for the pro-life movement. They were also the fruit of longstanding efforts to reclaim the human center of the abortion debate — a steady focus on the reality of the intrinsic dignity of both the child in the womb and his or her mother.
This holistic, compassionate message has swelled the pro-life ranks. And although President Obama remains opposed to the enactment of pro-life laws, promising to veto any that reach his desk, the pro-life victories won and the leadership demonstrated by women leaders in particular in 2015 set the stage for decisive action to protect the unborn if Americans elect a pro-life president in November.
Today, the United States and Canada are two of only seven countries to allow abortion on demand after five months, more than halfway through pregnancy, putting us in the company of some of the world’s most brutal regimes, including China and North Korea.
The permissive abortion laws in the United States are also increasingly at odds with public opinion. According to at least five major national polls, a majority of Americans support a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, or 5 months, of pregnancy. Women support the measure in higher numbers than men, with up to 71 percent of women in favor, according to one Washington Post/ABC poll.
This is in part because medical evidence has proven that, with proper care, babies can survive outside the womb at this point in their development, and that they feel excruciating pain as a result of the abortion procedure.
With this in mind, one of the top legislative priorities for the 114th Congress has been passing the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would end elective abortion after 20 weeks and thereby save up to 18,000 unborn lives each year.
The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 13, 2015, by a vote of 242-184. Emblematic of the extraordinary support for the bill among women, members of the Pro-life Women’s Caucus, including Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Diane Black (R-TN), led the House floor debate and vote.
In September, a majority of Senators also voted 54-42 to advance the bill, though it fell short of the procedural hurdle of 60 votes needed to advance.
The success of this legislation would mean that for the first time, instead of regulating around the abortion procedure, an entire segment of abortions in the late stage of pregnancy would be eliminated, protecting a whole class of unborn children in the United States.
And how desperately they are in need of protecting! The prevalence of late-term abortion in the United States led President George W. Bush to sign landmark legislation in 2002, protecting infants born alive as a result of failed abortions by defining them as persons under federal law. Since then, however, there have been many documented instances of abortion providers ignoring the law, which lacks meaningful penalties, and denying life-saving care to these babies.
In September 2015, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 248-177 the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, aimed at strengthening the law by requiring all health care professionals present for an abortion to provide the same level of care to preserve life as they would give to any baby born prematurely.
In a sad reminder of pro-abortion ideology in American politics, the current White House administration promised to veto this lifesaving legislation because it would have a “chilling effect” on late-term abortion, and only five Democrats crossed the aisle to vote “yes” on the bill in the House.
DEFUNDING BIG ABORTION
Efforts to defund the abortion industry giant Planned Parenthood gained added momentum in 2015 after the release of undercover videos by the Center for Medical Progress. The House of Representatives passed legislation last September to strip Planned Parenthood of the more than $500 million in taxpayer funding it receives each year. Although opponents in the Senate once again used procedural means to block the bill from moving forward, pro-life women were again at the head of the charge with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) introducing the high-profile legislation.
Undeterred, pro-life activists and legislators sought another opportunity to defund Planned Parenthood as part of the budget reconciliation process. This once-a-year legislation is not subject to the Senate’s filibuster rules and, in a landmark pro-life victory, the upper chamber passed the legislation with a simple majority vote of 52-47 on Dec. 4. The bill included language to redirect the bulk of the federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood to community health centers that provide a wider range of health care services to women. Despite a promised presidential veto, the national conversation generated by this victory builds an important precedent for using the process to defund Planned Parenthood in future years.
The fight to send a defunding bill to the president’s desk focused a national spotlight on the ugly truth of Planned Parenthood, including the organization’s trafficking of hearts, lungs, livers and brains of aborted children. That spotlight will grow even brighter in 2016 through the work of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives. This newly constituted panel, chaired by Rep. Blackburn, will examine the relationships of abortion providers and tissue procurement organizations and will help protect women and children by exposing negligence and abuse in the abortion industry.
Congress also acted in 2015 to preserve and extend the longstanding bans on federal funding of abortion that have been at the top of the pro-life agenda since the first Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976. In January 2015, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 7 by a vote of 242-179. The bill, with more than 40 co-sponsors, is intended to create a permanent, government-wide prohibition on federal funding for abortion and health plans that cover abortion, including those created under the Affordable Care Act.
Alongside this more comprehensive legislation, the pro-life movement has also been working to maintain longstanding restrictions on abortion funding in federal appropriations bills, including the Hyde, Smith, and Helms amendments, and to restrict international funding for abortion.
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
Among other bills proposed in the 114th Congress to protect the unborn and their mothers is the Dismemberment Abortion Ban, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. The legislation aims to prohibit a gruesome abortion technique typically used after 14 weeks of pregnancy and continuing into the third trimester: the use of steel tools to tear apart unborn babies limb from limb in order to remove them the womb.
State legislators are also testing the sweep of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In November 2015, the Court agreed to hear a challenge to Texas law that protects women by requiring abortion clinics to meet basic health and safety standards and doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The Court will likely issue a decision in June, and if the Texas law is upheld, similar safety measures will be enacted in other states, thereby protecting women’s health and ensuring better care for infants born alive as a result of failed abortion procedures.
The Supreme Court is likewise expected to rule in June on another important case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, which centers on questions of religious freedom and conscience. At issue is a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious entities to participate in the coverage of contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs under their health care plans.
The case is not unrelated to the U.S. bishops’ top legislative priority for 2016: the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA). If enacted, this bill would establish statutory protections for churches and charities that, as a matter of conscience, cannot provide coverage for abortion or abortion-inducing drugs and devices under their health insurance plans.
The growth of support for this and other pro-life legislation is just one way that, 43 years after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement continues to gain momentum — with more women than ever before taking leadership roles. Whether in Congress, in the courts or in the culture, advocates are forcefully making a case for the humanity of the unborn and the dignity and worth of both mother and child. In so doing, the pro-life movement at every level is upholding the highest ideals of our nation and responding to Pope Francis’ call to “protect and defend” the unborn.
MARJORIE DANNENFELSER is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance pro-life women in U.S. politics.