House Republicans have abruptly dropped plans to debate a bill banning virtually all late-term abortions after objections from GOP women and other lawmakers left them short of votes.
The decision was embarrassing for Republican leaders eager to display a united, GOP-led Congress.
The White House had threatened to veto the legislation, calling it "an assault on a woman's right to choose."
Democrats were strongly against the legislation and said the measure was nothing more than a political gesture.
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."
Republican leaders had planned to push the legislation through the House on Thursday. But after meeting repeatedly with female lawmakers and others who were unhappy with the measure, they decided late Wednesday to postpone that debate indefinitely.
Thursday's vote had been timed to coincide with the annual March for Life, when anti-abortion protesters stream to Washington to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
Instead, the House will debate legislation banning taxpayer funding for abortion — a prohibition that is already largely in effect.
The divisiveness over the measure comes as Republicans, looking ahead to the 2016 presidential and congressional elections, hope to increase their support from women. In control of the entire Congress for the first time in eight years, Republicans also want to demonstrate that they can focus on issues that matter to voters and not get bogged down in gridlock.
The legislation that had been scheduled for a vote Thursday would have criminalized virtually all abortions for pregnancies of 20 weeks or longer. It offered some exceptions, including for victims of rape that have already been reported to authorities.
Some Republicans, including female members of Congress, objected to that requirement, saying that many women feel too distressed to report rapes and should not be penalized. A 2013 Justice Department report calculated that just 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police.
"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."
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 Associated Press