Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., listens during a Sept. 15, 2011, news conference for the launch of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus on Capitol Hill.(Photo: Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images)
By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
As the House heads into a debate next week on a bill to limit
abortion, Republicans are reopening a subject that cost them dearly in
2012 and continues to present perils for the party's attempt to appeal
to women voters.
Even before the full House began discussing the
bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Republicans had a
sharp reminder of how sensitive the issue can be when Rep. Trent Franks
(R-Ariz.) appeared to say Wednesday that rape rarely results in
pregnancy. "The incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy (is) very low,"
Franks said, at a committee hearing on the bill.
Franks later said he meant that third-trimester abortions of pregnancies caused by rape are rare.
But for a party that has been blunt about its negative image with women, the controversy is like seeing a bad movie over again.
comes too close for comfort. It's different, but it's too close for
comfort,'' says Ari Fleischer, former Bush administration spokesman who
co-wrote the GOP's post-election report on its need for better
communication with minorities and women. "Republicans should have
learned a lesson as to how to talk and act more respectfully. Even this
comes too close after the two previous problems. Stop anything on this
topic that even comes close to being foolish and out of touch.''
incident summoned up two previous embarrassments for the GOP: During
his 2012 attempt to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri
Republican Todd Akin said that women cannot get pregnant from
"legitimate rape.'' And in a February 2012 hearing over the Blunt
Amendment, which would have allowed employers to end coverage of
contraception in employee health plans, Republicans called only men to
Next week's debate on the bill will allow Democrats to
continue the theme of a GOP "war on women'' - on Thursday, House
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the legislation "disrespectful to
the rights, health and safety of the American women.'' And it will
provide more microphone time during which Republicans may get into
rhetorical hot water.
"Communications means taking your stand on
the issues you believe in but doing so in a way that brings people in
instead of in a way that drives people out,'' Fleischer says.
bill may well pass the Republican-controlled House but would be unlikely
to go far in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.
interview with Roll Call, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said it is a mistake
for Republicans to bring the abortion bill up for a vote instead of
focusing on economic issues. "The stupidity is simply staggering,'' he
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that the
legislation was prompted as a response to the crimes committed at the
Philadelphia abortion clinic run by Dr. Kermit Gosnell. "I think the
legislation is appropriate," Boehner said.
because while Democrats have developed the "war on women'' theme for
their position on abortion, Republicans have no similar narrative for
their efforts on the other side of the issue, says Marjorie
Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, which contributes to
anti-abortion women candidates.
"They're shooting themselves in the foot because they haven't created an overall narrative within which mistakes can be made.''
should be presenting their legislation in the context of protecting
maternal and fetal health, she says, emphasizing "fairness toward the
vulnerable - the vulnerable women in these clinics and the vulnerable
late-term children who are being aborted.''
To be sure, a
congressman speaking in a hearing or on the floor doesn't draw the level
of attention as a candidate in a highly targeted Senate race. Akin's
comment, and a similar remark by Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock,
were viewed by Republicans as costing them two Senate seats. The 2014
elections, when Republicans again hope to take control of the Senate and
make more gains in the House, are nearly a year and a half away.
political context is very different,'' says John Green, director of the
Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Voters will likely have forgotten about Franks' comment and the abortion
bill by the Congressional elections in 2014, he says - but the incident
could contribute to the overall impression that voters retain of both
parties. "It becomes part of their 'common sense.' ''
Democratic groups will be sure to remind voters about the GOP efforts on
abortion come election time. "This isn't about the Trent Franks of the
world, this is about all the Republicans who are going to have to take
this vote'' on the House bill, says Marcy Stech of Emily's List, which
supports women candidates who favor abortion rights.