WASHINGTON — For the third time since 2013, the House on Tuesday passed legislation to ban abortions 20 weeks or more into a pregnancy, a threshold the bill’s Republican authors say is the point at which fetuses become capable of experiencing pain.
While it is the first time the House, controlled by the GOP since 2011, has passed the bill under a president willing to sign it, the legislation is not expected to gain traction in the Senate.
“Very late term abortions are an extreme and barbaric practice,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “The U.S. is only one of 7 countries on Earth, including North Korea and China, which allow elective abortions after 20 weeks.”
Outside conservative groups echoed that point.
“The United States is only one of seven countries in the world that allows elective abortions past 20 weeks or five months in a pregnancy — at which point scientific evidence suggests the baby is capable of feeling excruciating pain during the procedure,” according to Melanie Israel, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation.
Such claims rely on subjective interpretations of “late term” and “elective.” Far more than seven countries allow abortions past 20 weeks in cases of rape or incest but also for medical reasons that do not necessarily endanger the mother’s life. The House-passed bill contains exceptions only for the first two scenarios and to save the life of the mother.
The co-chairs of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), along with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), said in a statement the ban “endangers women, interferes with their private health care decisions, and marginalizes sexual assault victims while also being blatantly unconstitutional.”
Ninety-nine percent of abortions already take place before 21 weeks, according to Planned Parenthood.
The issue of fetal pain, scientifically, is relatively unsettled. The Journal of the American Medical Association wrote in 2005: “Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”
In explaining the new legislation, Franks’s staff cited two dozen academic papers and other sources on the issue of fetal pain, including a paper published in 2010 that makes no definitive statement as to whether fetal pain is possible before a different threshold — 24 weeks — and stresses that fetal pain is “qualitatively different” than pain for infants or adults.
A document distributed by Franks’s staff, meant to back up the bill scientifically, included footnotes below 10 different citations that make clear the cited works’ authors do not believe fetal pain is experienced as the bill implies.
The legislation, which would impose fines or potential jail time for providers who carry out abortions past 20 weeks, passed on Tuesday evening in a 237 to 189 vote.