Washington (CNN) -- Congress took up one of the most divisive issues in politics Thursday as the House of Representatives rejected a controversial measure banning abortions based on the sex of a fetus.
In the House, 246 representatives backed the bill while 168 voted against it, leaving the proposal short of the two-thirds total necessary for passage. Most Republicans supported the measure; the majority of Democrats opposed it.
Supporters characterized the proposal as a necessary defense of the civil rights of unborn children; opponents called it part of a broader so-called war on women and an ongoing assault on legalized abortion.
The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act would have imposed possible fines and prison sentences of up to five years on doctors who knowingly perform abortions chosen on grounds based on sex.
Abortion providers could also have been subjected to civil penalties, including punitive monetary damages, under certain circumstances.
The issue is about "whether or not in the land of the free and the home of the brave that we are going to allow little girls to be killed before they're born simply because they are little girls," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona, said Thursday morning. Franks was the bill's main sponsor.
"I would suggest to you that if that should become the accepted practice in America -- that we are no longer going to care about that -- then maybe it's time to board (Congress up) and go home and say we did our best but we just didn't quite make it."
Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said that "most people in government are unaware" that abortion based on the sex of a fetus "is part of a deliberate plan of population control that has now boomeranged and come to our own country."
"This is the real war on women," he insisted.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, argued Wednesday that it's "hypocrisy to say that one is pro-woman and that it's OK to end the life of an unborn child just because of its gender."
"Since when did America subscribe to the idea that males are worth more than females?" she asked. "It's sick, it's discriminatory, it's sexist and it is blatantly anti-woman and anti-human."
Supporters of the measure cited multiple studies to back claims of a growing pattern of abortions based on the sex of the fetus. Opponents, however, took issue with certain interpretations of the studies, and warned of negative ramifications for women's health if the bill becomes law.
Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asserted Wednesday that the bill "tramples (on) the rights of women under the guise of nondiscrimination, while doing absolutely nothing to provide women with needed resources for their babies, female and male."
Citing opposition to the bill from groups such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, he said, "If this measure is passed into law, we will then require that medical and mental health professionals violate ... doctor-patient confidentiality" and report suspected violations to law enforcement authorities.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, said the bill's backers were "exploiting serious issues like racism and sexism in a backdoor attempt to make abortion illegal."
"Attempts to restrict or deny access to safe abortions is harmful to women's health and would ultimately take us back to the days of back-alley abortions," she said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said nobody he has talked to favors abortion based on sex preferences, and the proposal was brought up simply "because somebody decided politically it was a difficult place to put people in."
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, called the debate over the bill "yet another distraction and yet another day that this Republican majority fails to act on job creation."
But Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that banning abortion based on the sex of a fetus is an "important issue to the American people."
"This type of sex selection ... most Americans find pretty repulsive," Boehner said. "Our (Republican) members feel strongly about it. That's why it's being brought" to a vote.
Asked why the Republican-controlled House took up an abortion bill at a time when GOP leaders have called economic recovery their top concern, a spokesman for Boehner insisted Wednesday that the party's priorities had not changed.
"House Republicans are focused on the American people's top priorities: jobs and the economy," spokesman Michael Steel said. "Dealing with a bill to prevent sex-selective abortion ... doesn't change that."
While Republican leaders wouldn't say why they brought up the bill under an expedited legislative process requiring a two-thirds vote for House approval, the maneuver avoided an extended argument over a divisive social issue with the potential to sidetrack the economic debate.
Franks' bill came to a vote at a time when abortion, a perennial hot-button topic, has re-emerged as a political focal point. The anti-abortion rights group Live Action released two videos this week that is says shows Planned Parenthood staffers offering advice to a pair of women involved in a sting on how best to proceed with an abortion based on the sex of a fetus.
Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of medical services for women, responded to the release of the videos by noting that one of the staff members in question -- a woman in Austin, Texas -- had lost her job because she failed to follow proper procedures for the organization.
The organization insisted Thursday in a written statement, however, that the second staffer, based in New York, had provided "nonjudgmental, informative services that are in accordance with social work standards for patient interaction."
The statement noted that Planned Parenthood "opposes sex selection abortion and insists on the highest quality care. ... If any Planned Parenthood organization learns of an instance where a staff member has not fully followed policies or procedures, they take swift action and remedy the situation."
At the same time, the statement blasted Live Action's promotion of "a series of hoax patient videotapes related to sex selection."
"Edited videos of hoax patient visits are part of a coordinated campaign over the last several years to distort Planned Parenthood's services, mission and values," the statement said.
Planned Parenthood's leadership jumped into the presidential contest Wednesday, unveiling a roughly $1.5 million ad campaign targeting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The ad, which says Romney would deny women critical medical services, is set to run in the battleground states of Florida, Iowa and Virginia.
CNN's Kate Bolduan and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.