WASHINGTON -- House Republicans provoked a fresh confrontation in the ongoing battle over women's healthcare rights, but failed Thursday to win approval for a bill designed to outlaw abortions based on gender.
The bill, aimed at families trying to avoid unwanted daughters, attracted the support of a majority of representatives, but failed because it was considered under a procedure normally used for uncontroversial measures. It needed the votes of two-thirds of the House.
Republicans hoped to force Democrats to go along with the measure or to put them in the position of having to explain why they shot down a bill Republicans said was designed to protect women. For the most part, Democrats held the party line, decrying the measure as political theater and voting against it.
Rejecting that charge, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that Americans find abortions based on gender "pretty repulsive."
"This is an important issue to the American people," he said. "And our members feel strongly about it. That's why it's being brought to the floor."
Under the legislation, anyone who performs or pressures someone into getting an abortion based on the sex or race of the fetus would face five years in prison. Doctors and nurses who do not report suspected sex-based abortions would also face a year in prison and a fine. The woman having the abortion would be exempt from prosecution.
Republicans could attempt to pass the bill a second time on a simple majority vote.
Data on sex-selection in the U.S. is patchy, but in debate in the House before the bill passed, Republicans said it is female fetuses that are most often targeted for abortion, amounting to "gendercide" and a "war on women."
"There can be no rights for women if we don't allow them the right to life," Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) said in debate Wednesday.
Firing back, Democrats criticized Republicans' voting record on other women's rights initiatives, including pay equality.
"It is another Republican intrusion into a woman's right to choose," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said.
Women's rights groups said they oppose the practice of performing abortions based on sex, but called on Congress to do more to address discrimination against women, which they see as the root of the problem.
For cultural and economic reasons, abortion based on sex is more common in some South Asian and East Asian countries. But research by Columbia University economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund also found evidence of sex selection in Chinese American, Indian American and South Korean American families who had already had a daughter.
Their findings were cited in the bill, and the measure drew ire from some Asian American groups that worried it would lead to particular discrimination against Asian American women seeking abortions.
"South Asian women will have their motives scrutinized by abortion providers," a coalition of women's groups wrote to members of Congress on Tuesday. "In short, it encourages racial profiling in the doctor's office."