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US House Bans 20-Week Abortions on Kermit Gosnell Anniversary

(UPDATED) Boehner calls bill 'the most pro-life legislation to ever come before this body.'
US House Bans 20-Week Abortions on Kermit Gosnell Anniversary
Image: American Life League
The 2013 March for Life.

Voting 242-184 and largely along party lines, the US House approved the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act on Wednesday, the second anniversary of abortionist Kermit Gosnell's conviction for murder.

Pro-life groups hailed the vote's life-saving potential. About 10,000 abortions are performed after 20 weeks each year, according to federal statistics. "This bill would save thousands of unborn babies annually from terribly painful deaths," said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life. "It is now clear that the overwhelming majority of House Democrats believe that painfully dismembering babies, in the sixth month and later, is just fine—now let them try to explain that to their constituents."

"I'm grateful to the US House of Representatives for voting to end the abhorrent practice of late-term abortion,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “No nation can seriously call itself humane while 20 week-old unborn children are unprotected from the abortion industry. We have much further to go as a government and as a culture in protecting the dignity of all human life, but this is a step in the right direction."

During the floor debate, House Speaker John Boehner said, “Growing up with 11 brothers and sisters, I didn’t need my parents to tell me that every child is a gift from God, but let me tell you, they did. They did it often. H.R. 36 is the most pro-life legislation to ever come before this body."

The Senate has not voted on the legislation yet, and President Obama, a supporter of abortion rights, is likely to veto it. The measure was supposed to be voted on back in January on the eve of the annual March for Life in Washington. But several influential Republican lawmakers blocked the vote, demanding changes in the bill’s treatment of rape survivors who became pregnant as a result of that crime. After the bill's rape clause was amended, House leadership decided to schedule the vote on the anniversary of Gosnell's conviction. Gosnell is currently serving life in prison for three convictions for first-degree murder. He killed three infants born alive during attempted abortions.

Pro-choice critics of the measure say it is not based on credible scientific evidence and is harmful to the well-being of women. According to a report in The Washington Post:

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the measure contrasted with the usual Republican demands for keeping government out of people’s lives, saying, “The bill continues to add a harsh burden to survivors of sexual assault, rape and incest who are already enduring unimaginable hardship.”

Prior to the vote, Republican leaders spoke out in favor of the bill. “Life is precious and we must do everything we can to fight for it and protect it,” said House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, in comments to The Weekly Standard. “Our commitment for the House to consider this important legislation has been steadfast and I am proud of the work of our members to prepare this bill for House consideration [this] week.”

In 2013, the House approved very similar legislation, but when it came up for a House vote in January 2015, some objected to the rape-reporting requirement. In the 2013 draft, women who were raped, became pregnant as a result, and then sought out a late-term abortion would be required to report the rape to police. The new bill drops this requirement, but adds that abortion providers make sure that rape victims receive medical care, or licensed counseling, 48 hours before undergoing a late-term abortion.

After the bill was pulled in January, prolife organizations stepped up social media advocacy, using the hashtag #theyfeelpain.

This issue of elective abortion after rape is showing up in pop culture. On May 7, the ABC TV program, Scandal, a political drama set in Washington, aired an episode in which a decorated admiral rapes a Navy ensign who becomes pregnant. The program includes a 30-second scene in which an abortion is performed. Media critics lauded the program’s strong pro-choice message.

But in legislatures across the nation, there is a fresh surge in pro-life laws. Eleven states have approved similar measures to H.R. 36. The New York Times reports that 37 new rules on abortion have been enacted in 11 states already this year. Arkansas alone approved six new laws. On Thursday, Wisconsin legislators proposed banning any abortion after 20 weeks.

In the meantime, while much of the new legislation focuses on waiting periods, counseling, and what doctors can say to patients, The New England Journal of Medicine last week published a study showing that severely premature newborns at age 22 weeks (some weighing 1.1 pounds at birth) may survive with intensive treatment with few lasting developmental problems. Previously, many preterm infants less than 24 weeks and alive at birth would receive little or no medical intervention, and physicians allowed them to die.

The study raises new questions about fetal viability, as the NYTreports:

The study, of thousands of premature births, found that a tiny minority of babies born at 22 weeks who were medically treated survived with few health problems, although the vast majority died or suffered serious health issues. Leading medical groups had already been discussing whether to lower the consensus on the age of viability, now cited by most medical experts as 24 weeks. The Supreme Court has said that states must allow abortion if a fetus is not viable outside the womb, and changing that standard could therefore raise questions about when abortion is legal.

The NYT article closes with the testimonial of Danielle Pickering, a Baptist pastor’s wife in Newton, Iowa. Due to a problem pregnancy, she was hospitalized in 2012 at 22 weeks. She agreed to receive corticosteroids, which often improve a preterm infant’s chances for survival. The couple’s son, Micah, was born four days later. You can see a photo of the Pickering family, including 3-year-old Micah, here.

CT editorialized on fetal-pain legislation in January 2014.

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