WASHINGTON — On the day that hundreds of thousands descend on the nation’s capital to protest legal abortion, lawmakers in the House of Representatives plan to vote on a bill that would ban abortions past 20 weeks based on fetal pain.
The House vote takes place on Jan. 22, when the annual March for Life will be under way to protest the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 to declare a constitutional right to abortion in a pair of cases known as Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.
U.S. Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, on Jan. 6. The legislation would prohibit abortion based on scientific evidence showing unborn babies are capable of feeling pain approximately 20 weeks post-fertilization, but with exceptions in cases of rape, incest or the physical life of the mother.
“The United States is one of the few remaining countries in the world that allows abortion after 20 weeks,” Blackburn said in a statement on the day of the bill’s introduction to the House.
“We have a moral obligation to end dangerous late-term abortions in order to protect women and these precious babies from criminals like Kermit Gosnell and others who prey on the most vulnerable in our society.”
Kermit Gosnell was a notorious Philadelphia abortionist, convicted of murdering three infants by snipping their spines shortly after birth and running an unsanitary abortion facility with particularly gruesome practices that dubbed it a “house of horrors.”
Public Support for Ban
Polls show public support for restricting abortion to 20 weeks, which the federal fetal-pain abortion ban would accomplish. According to a November Quinnipiac University poll, 60% of respondents supported banning abortion after 20 weeks.
The law will affect a small slice of abortions performed annually in the U.S. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, 1.2% of abortions of unborn children committed in the U.S. occur at 21 weeks and over; 3.6% of abortions take place between 16 and 20 weeks; whereas the vast majority (89%) of abortions take place within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Approximately 1.06 million abortions took place in 2011.
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., co-chair of the House’s bipartisan pro-life caucus, told the Register the bill would definitely pass in the House.
“It’s good we’re passing it very early and doing it in connection with the March for Life,” he said.
The Senate, however, poses a different challenge, where abortion-supporting senators may attempt a filibuster. However, Lipinski noted that, regardless of what happens, the fetal-pain abortion ban would draw out where senators stand on the life issues.
“I’m very hopeful that [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is going to stick to running an open Senate and that it will be something that will be brought up,” he said.
“It would be good to have all the senators have to take a stand on this bill, and I hope that does happen.”
Douglas Johnson, National Right to Life Committee (NRLC)’s legislative director, said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., protected senators from controversial votes on legislation he did not favor, including abortion, when he was majority leader. Now that the chamber has switched from Democratic to Republican hands, Sen. McConnell, R-Ky., is expected to allow the bill to come to a vote.
“Every member of Congress is going to have to go on the record for this legislation and, of course, explain themselves to their constituents,” Johnson said.
NRLC developed the model legislation for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which has been enacted in 10 states. Johnson said the federal law sponsored by Reps. Blackburn and Franks would make it “uniform national policy.”
He said the federal fetal-pain abortion ban has its roots in the 2007 Supreme Court case that vindicated the partial-birth abortion ban’s constitutionality.
“We think that they did open the door to broader protections,” Johnson said. “They didn’t open the door as far as we’d like it to be, but they opened it farther than it had been before.”
“This bill would push those protections further,” he said.
Similar to Partial-Birth Abortion Ban?
Johnson expected that the battle over the fetal-pain abortion bill would follow a similar course to the partial-birth abortion ban, which NRLC developed in 1995.
“It took us eight years, was vetoed twice, it was defeated in the Senate a couple times, but every time it came up, it had more support than before,” he said, “because the more public attention was called to it, the more people were for it.”
Johnson noted that even if the Senate did approve the House bill, “we still face the president’s veto.” The last time the House voted on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, President Barack Obama issued a formal veto threat, even though the Senate never took up the bill.
“Regrettably, the current occupant in the White House has never found an abortion limitation that he could support,” Johnson said.
But if abortion supporters in the Senate block the bill with a filibuster, Johnson indicated that scenario would provide further opportunity for NRLC and others in the pro-life community to educate the public about abortion in a high-profile way.
“We believe this is a small stepping stone to the day when children enjoy the kind of broad protections they ought to enjoy,” he said.
“But in order for that to occur, we need more support on the U.S. Supreme Court, more support in the Senate, and we need a president who is willing to advance pro-life protections instead of undermining them.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.