WASHINGTON — House Republicans ran into divisions Wednesday over the new Congress' first abortion bill, and leaders were searching for a way to advance the legislation without an embarrassing split over the issue.
Legislation set for debate Thursday would criminalize virtually all abortions for pregnancies of 20 weeks or longer. It would offer some exceptions, including for victims of rape that have already been reported to authorities.
Some Republicans were upset about that requirement, saying that many women feel too distressed to report rapes and should not be penalized.
"The issue becomes, we're questioning the woman's word," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C. "We have to be compassionate to women when they're in a crisis situation."
There were also objections to the bill's exemption for minors who are victims of incest and have reported the incident.
"So the exception would apply to a 16-year-old but not a 19-year-old?" said Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa. "I mean, incest is incest."
Thursday's debate was timed to coincide with the annual march on Washington by abortion foes marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion.
It also was coming as Republicans, looking ahead to the 2016 presidential and congressional elections, hope to increase their support from women.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a chief sponsor of the bill, called it "a sincere effort" to protect women and "their unborn, pain-capable child from the atrocity of late-term abortion." He also said GOP leaders "want to try to create as much unity as we can."
The White House has threatened to veto the legislation, calling it "an assault on a woman's right to choose."
The GOP rift on the issue was discussed Wednesday at a private meeting of House Republicans, who by a large majority are strongly anti-abortion.
Afterward, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a brief interview that he believed the House would debate the bill as planned.
"We're moving forward," he said. "There's a discussion and we're continuing to have discussions."
The legislation would also allow an exception where an abortion is necessary to save the mother's life.
Under the bill, those performing the outlawed abortions could face fines or imprisonment of up to five years.
A report this week by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office cited estimates by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that about 10,000 abortions in the U.S. are performed annually 20 weeks or later into pregnancies. The budget office estimated that if the bill became law, three-fourths of those abortions would end up occurring before the 20th week.
The House approved a similar version of the bill in 2013, but the measure was never considered in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. Its fate remains uncertain in the Senate, where anti-abortion sentiment is less strong than in the House.