Backed by the Trump administration, the US House of Representatives passed a bill today banning abortions after 20 weeks—the first step toward the federal abortion restrictions many pro-life advocates have hoped to see from their new president.
The House voted 237-189 in favor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which targets late-term abortions at the point where pro-life advocates argue that babies can feel pain in utero.
If the measure sounds familiar, that’s because the House approved similar bills in 2013 and 2015, but failed to get enough support to make it through the Senate. Unlike those years, when a Democratic president was likely to veto such a law, President Donald Trump has pledged to endorse the ban.
“The administration strongly supports H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and applauds the House of Representatives for continuing its efforts to secure critical pro-life protections,” the executive office of the president said in a statement.
However, the bill faces slim odds in the Senate, where Republicans hold only 52 seats.
H.R. 36 criminalizes abortion once a fetus has reached 20 weeks, except in cases where the procedure is necessary to save a mother’s life or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The law would subject those who perform (or attempt to perform) an abortion after 20 weeks to a fine, up to five years in prison, or both. (Over 90 percent of abortions take place much earlier in a woman’s pregnancy, before 14 weeks, based on Centers for Disease Control data.)
States across the country have moved toward similar abortion restrictions in recent years, with Texas upholding its own “fetal pain” law despite state senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster making national news in 2013. Others like Wisconsin have enacted similar legislation.
Even after legal challenges stalled implementation in states like Georgia and Idaho, 17 states now have measures in place cutting off abortion around the 20-week mark, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
A majority of Americans are in favor of a 20-week abortion ban, provided it offers exceptions like the version just approved by the House; a 2017 Marist poll and a 2014 Quinnipiac University poll both found about 60 percent support such legislation.
“There is substantial medical evidence that an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization, if not earlier,” states H.R. 36, introduced by Arizona Republican Trent Franks. “It is the purpose of the Congress to assert a compelling governmental interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which substantial medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain.
Both medical experts and pro-life advocates have debated the fetal pain argument at the center of the policy.
Some pro-lifers believe fetal pain bills, because they include exceptions allowing abortion, cede too much ground. Others suggest that the existence of pain should not be the linchpin to defend human life, as Katelyn Beaty argued in a 2014 CT editorial.
“If we have any historical memory, we know science is a fickle handmaiden,” she wrote. “We don't wish this to be true, but research may soon confirm that unborn babies can't experience pain until much later in development. Meanwhile, abortion providers could find ways to perform ‘pain-free’ abortions. Of course, in these cases we would still vehemently oppose the abortion, because we believe it takes a life, not just a life that feels pain.”
When Ohio governor John Kasich approved a 20-week ban but vetoed a 6-week ban last year, critics like James Dobson, president of Family Talk and founder of Focus on the Family, criticized the move as cowardly.
But given that the US Supreme Court has refused to defend state “heartbeat laws” (6-week bans) that have been ruled unconstitutional, other pro-lifers supported his strategy. “Governor Kasich got it right by embracing the strategic incremental approach to ending abortion,” stated Ohio Right to Life president Mike Gonidakis.
The incremental approach to stopping abortion has been effective: 231 abortion restrictions were enacted in 27 states from 2011 to 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The abortion rate in the United States is now the lowest since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.
“The bills are an attempt to humanize the abortion debate,” Mary Spaulding Balch, National Right to Life’s director of state legislation told CT in 2014. “We now have compelling evidence that the unborn child can feel pain. It's probably just one relevant factor, but we do have to start somewhere. Pain is one thing people can relate to.”
Still, major pro-life groups celebrated the new legislation making its way through its first legislative hurdle.
“The US House did the right thing in voting to stop that barbaric practice,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “It’s up to the Senate to stand with the majority of Americans who know that there is something wrong with a culture that can save the live of one premature baby in an incubator while the life of another is cruelly ended in an abortion facility.”
Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, stated that the bill would “save thousands of unborn babies annually from terribly painful deaths.”
Trump has largely stood by his pro-life campaign promises, appointing conservative justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, signing a law allowing states to withhold funding from Planned Parenthood, and reinstating a ban on federal funds for organizations that perform abortions overseas.
The president’s pro-life platform was an incentive for evangelical voters, particularly millennial-aged women, who turned out for Trump more than their male counterparts, CT Women reported.