In the face of a public health crisis and a powerful lobbying industry, House Republicans have finally had enough. This weekend was an awakening. It was the final straw. A bill was speedily endorsed by the White House on Monday morning, and was introduced and passed this Tuesday. No, I am not talking about the gun epidemic in this country that takes 12,000 lives a year. I am talking about the much more pressing issue of our time, safe and legal abortion.
House Republicans passed a bill Tuesday effectively banning abortion after 20 weeks. This standard is based on a widely disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks have surpassed. The American Congress of Obstetrician and Gynecologists and most major medical groups agree that a fetus does not develop to the point that it can feel pain until the 28th week of gestation. So why is there a disconnect between scientific opinion and congressional action?
The bill is entitled the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” The claim that a fetus at 20 weeks can feel pain is largely pseudoscience and most doctors who support it have a history of anti-abortion affiliations and sentiments. While the bill makes exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, the bill would not allow an abortion to protect her medical well-being aside from her explicit death. In order to enforce such restrictions, the legislation would penalize doctors who performed abortions after 20 weeks with fines, a felony conviction and potentially 5 years in jail.
To throw support behind this bill in the midst of a nation reeling from a tragedy is a calculated move on the part of the White House and House Republicans. To use the cover of the news cycle to strip women of their right to control their own bodies is morally questionable as it places women in jeopardy of having a child they are unfit to raise – financially, psychologically, or physically. It is a doubly callous move for a party apparently so obsessed with life to guarantee it during gestation, but to ignore those gunned down outside of the womb. House Republicans claimed that no action will be taken regarding gun legislation. Why is life so valuable in one setting, but disposable in the other?
This is not even a pressing issue. Only 1.5% of abortions occur after the 20 week mark according to the American Association of Gynecologists, and oftentimes the abortions performed arise from desperate need. After 20 weeks, most women get abortions due to medical complications of the fetus, situations that would not qualify under the bill’s exception relating to the life of the mother. These fetal anomalies which account for many late term abortions are not even detectable before 20 weeks. This house bill will force women to carry fetuses to term even if they have little to no viability outside the womb. This bill can have devastating effects for women already reeling from losing a wanted child.
These are all disheartening outcomes, but not as disheartening as what this bill is trying to do in the context of the larger anti-abortion movement. This bill aims to chip away at the legal framework established in Roe v. Wade. Similar bills have already been passed in twenty states. Roe v. Wade established that abortion should be legal insofar as the fetus isn’t viable outside of the womb. This has generally been understood as 24 to 26 weeks. This bill explicitly ignores legal precedent and hopes to undermine it. Overall, late term abortion isn’t something most people advocate and due to the restrictions that this bill enacts anti-abortion advocates believe that its constitutionality would be upheld. Essentially, this would undercut Roe v. Wade replacing the fetal viability standard with a new one based on the pseudo-science of fetal pain. The earliest a fetus can survive outside of the womb is 22 weeks with immediate and robust medical care, and even then the odds of survival are still minimal. The Susan B. Anthony group, an anti-abortion organization, reaffirmed this point, “this legislation is meant specifically to address the humanity of the unborn child in the womb on the scientific truth point that they can feel pain, not whether they are viable.” Under the new fetal pain precedent, anti-abortion advocates will continue to present pseudo-science saying fetuses experience pain earlier and earlier until they say fetuses at ALL ages feel pain, and thus ban ALL abortion.
This bill is unlikely to pass. Democrats will likely filibuster and Senate Republicans will most likely be unable to get the eight Democrats needed to end debate. The danger is not in this bill, but in the consistent attempt to undermine safe and legal abortion. It is saddening to see such an attack on women’s autonomy in the name of protecting life. This bill, even if it were to become law, is unlikely to protect any life, is not based on robust scientific evidence about fetal pain, and would prohibit women in desperate need from getting the medical care they deserve. So, why is this what House Republicans chose to focus on this week?