WASHINGTON — The murder trial and conviction of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell may have increased public awareness and sympathy to unborn children who are capable of feeling pain in the womb as early as 20 weeks after conception.

This public awareness could assist in gaining support for legislation to ban abortion on the basis of fetal pain, such as a bill that was discussed this week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The horrible, horrible suffering inflicted on little human lives in every abortion is now brutally clear to anyone who followed the Pennsylvania proceedings. After the Gosnell case, nobody can claim that abortion is victimless. The tiny victims experience excruciating pain,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

Schneck told the Register that the Gosnell trial “shocked” many Americans.

“After 55 million abortion deaths since Roe, the country’s ability to comprehend the depravity of abortion was muddled in legal and political discussions of rights and policies. The trial shattered some of that complacency,” Schneck said.

Some analysts and pro-life observers say Gosnell — who was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for snipping the spinal cords of babies just minutes after they were born — could alter the political landscape in favor of legislation that prohibits late-term abortions for unborn babies 20 weeks in the womb.

Nine states have enacted bills to ban those types of late-term abortions: Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Dakota.

Those laws are modeled after a bill drafted by the National Right to Life Committee, a federation of state right-to-life organizations.


Federal Legislation

There is also an effort under way to pass similar legislation on the federal level. U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., has introduced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which aims to protect children who are capable of feeling pain in the womb by prohibiting abortion 20 weeks after conception.

Franks’ legislation is an amended form of an earlier bill that would have granted those protections to unborn children in the District of Columbia. The bill now seeks to extend those protections nationwide.

In prepared remarks, Franks said that, while the Gosnell case had shocked the sensibilities of millions of Americans, the “crushing fact” is that late-term abortions on babies, just like those killed by Gosnell, have been happening “hundreds of times, every single day, for the past 40 years.”

“Indeed, let us not forget that, had Kermit Gosnell dismembered these babies before they had traveled down the birth canal, only moments earlier, he would have, in many places nationwide, been performing an entirely legal procedure,” Franks said. “If America truly understands that horrifying reality, hearts and laws will change.

“To this end, I have re-introduced the D.C. Pain-Capable Unborn Protection Act, which will now be amended to broaden its coverage so that its provision will apply nationwide,” Franks said.

Whether the legislation cannot only clear committee, but also garner enough votes to pass the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then be signed into law by President Barack Obama, who supports legalized abortion, is questionable.

However, the issue of “fetal-pain legislation” is, at least for now, getting wider attention and a fresh look from many people.


Medical Testimony

During testimony May 23 before the House Justice Committee’s Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee, Dr. Anthony Levatino, a pro-life obstetrician-gynecologist in Las Cruces, N.M., described, in somewhat graphic detail, the process by which a baby is killed during a late-term abortion.

“If you refuse to believe that this procedure inflicts severe pain on that unborn child, please think again,” Levatino, a former abortionist, told the House committee.

Jill Stanek, a longtime pro-life advocate, testified that the Gosnell case provided “further evidence” that the lines “between illegal infanticide and legal feticide,” both via abortion, have become blurred.

“It is easy to be horrified by heart-wrenching stories such as these and to imagine the torture abortion survivors endure as they are being killed,” said Stanek, who recalled her experience of discovering that babies who survived abortions were being left to die in a soiled utility closet in the Illinois hospital where she was working as a maternity nurse in the 1990s. “But it is somehow not so easy for some to envision preborn babies the same age being tortured as they are killed by similar methods.”

The National Right to Life Committee also reports that a March nationwide poll conducted by the Polling Company found that 64% of respondents said they supported laws such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act unless the life of the mother was in danger. Only 30% opposed such legislation.

“Congressman Chris Smith [R-N.J.] and other champions of the House efforts to ban abortion when the fetus can feel pain today have a much wider circle of Americans who understand the imperative for this legislation,” Schneck said.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, agreed.

“As far as the Gosnell trial is concerned, I believe it is helpful in moving this type of legislation forward,” Johnson told the Register. “Unfortunately, this case also showed that, while pro-life bills can be very helpful in protecting unborn babies, more efforts need to be made to enforce these laws.”


Arizona Law Blocked

On May 21, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,  a federal court based in San Francisco, known for liberal rulings, blocked enforcement of Arizona’s state law that seeks to restrict abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy. The Ninth Circuit — which pro-lifers note has more rulings overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court than any other appeals court in the country — said the Arizona law violated the right to abortion granted in Roe v. Wade.

Johnson told the Register that the decision was “expected” and that Maricopa County attorney Bill Montgomery has already announced his intention to appeal. Johnson said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say on the matter.

Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said in prepared remarks that the ruling was “inconsequential” for the national debate, writing that the Arizona law is based on different legal justification and bears little similarity to the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

“National Right to Life strongly concurs in Congressman Franks’ decision that the time is ripe to seek protection for pain-capable unborn children nationwide,” Johnson said in the NRLC statement.

Schneck agreed.

“It’s tragic, though,” Schneck added, “that it took a criminal monster like Kermit Gosnell to wake up the country.”

 Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.