National Abortion Fight Looms Large

(Jay Janner/

After years of fighting over abortion at the state level, Democrats and Republicans are teeing up to bring the battle to the national stage.

Senate Republicans today will introduce controversial legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks that mirrors one passed in the House of Representatives in June and is part of a nationwide push by Republicans lawmakers to implement prohibitions on abortion from the point at which they believe a fetus can feel pain.

"If we can convince the American people to provide assistance and prevent abortions at the 20th week, nothing bad is going to happen," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who will co-sponsor the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the Senate. "Good things will happen; babies will be born that would not have made it otherwise."

"And only God knows who they will grow up to be," he added.

At the same time, Graham's announcement comes just two days after Democrats declared that support for abortion was a key issue that led to Democrat Terry McAuliffe's victory over outspokenly anti-abortion Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the hotly contested Virginia governor race.

Their argument: if the Va. Governor race is a test case for 2014, as both parties have suggested, then Democrats should go on the offense on abortion and other social issues.

"When we looked at the abortion issue, the public was overwhelmingly on our side," said McAuliffe's campaign manager Robby Mook at an event with Planned Parenthood today.

Indeed, anti-abortion conservative group the Susan B. Anthony List acknowledged in a statement on election night that Cuccinelli's loss was due, in part, to the attacks launched at him by Democrats over his abortion views.

The group warned that if the Democratic strategy on social issues is left unanswered, GOP candidates could face Cuccinelli's fate.

"The Democrat strategy for 2014 is set: demonize pro-life candidates and spend big on 'war on women' advertising," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president the SBA List. "We must do more as a party, as candidates, and as a movement to aggressively expose the other side's extremism and penchant for putting women and children at risk through their abortion policies."

In recent years 12 states have approved legislation that bans abortion at 20 weeks or fewer. One of those laws in the Texas state legislature resulted in a more than 11-hour filibuster by Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis, who is now using the momentum from the issue to launch a run for governor.

Ultimately with these state bills, conservative advocates aim to challenge the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which established a constitutional right to abortion before fetal viability-generally believed to be at 24 weeks.

Graham's bill brings the fight to the federal level.

"At 20 weeks the baby can feel pain," Graham said, even while he acknowledged that the legislation does not have enough support to pass in the Senate. "And you can actually perform surgery on a child at 20 weeks."

(There is conflicting scientific research whether fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks, the claim that underpins this and other similar abortion bans.)

Like the House-passed bill, the Senate bill includes an exception in the case of rape or incest, or if the mother's life is endangered.

The lack of consensus between the two parties about where the political center is on abortion is poised to play itself out in 2014 races and with potential 2016 presidential contenders.

Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a rising political star who many believe has presidential ambitions, said he would like to be the lead sponsor of the 20-week abortion ban bill, but ultimately he signed on to Graham's bill as a co-sponsor.

And Graham, who is up for re-election in 2014, faces multiple primary challengers on his right, though he denied that the timing of this bill has anything to do with the political pressure he faces to bolster his conservative credentials.

"Whether or not I leave next June or at some later period will be up to the voters of South Carolina," Graham said. "This is important to me; this is why I want to be a senator."

"Will it wipe away all the other criticisms? No."

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who some believe is interested in running for president again in 2016, forced the state legislature into a second special session in order to pass the anti-abortion bill that was initially blocked by Davis' filibuster.

On the other hand, Democrats are increasingly coming to view abortion as a political advantage with a key bloc of the electorate: women voters.

"Its always better to be playing offense than defense," said McAuliffe pollster Geoff Garin. "For many many years when the issue of abortion came up, Democrats instinctively would go into a defensive crouch."

"But they should have confidence that we really do represent the center of gravity on these issues," Garin said.