Republicans in Congress are wasting no time following through on the anti-abortion agenda the GOP laid out after winning significant gains in the 2014 midterm elections.
On Tuesday, the very first day of the 114th Congress, two lawmakers introduced a measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks, in direct violation of the protections afforded under Roe v. Wade. Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) reintroduced the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, the same legislation that successfully passed the House last year.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — who introduced a companion 20-week abortion ban in the Senate last year that was stalled by Democratic leadership — has already indicated that he plans to re-introduce his own measure in the next few weeks, too. Now that the Senate is GOP-controlled, Republicans are anticipating that they’ll have enough support to pass the ban in both chambers this year, helping the anti-choice community gain momentum for this particular tactic to limit reproductive rights.
“In a Republican Senate, under my leadership, we would have the kind of real debate on the issues that the American people want,” Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told the audience at the National Right to Life Conference in the fall. “For six years, the president has been isolated from this growing movement. He will be forced to listen to the cause that’s brought us all here this morning.”
These type of abortion bans are often called “fetal pain” measures because they’re based on the notion that fetuses are sentient after 20 weeks of pregnancy, assuming that an abortion procedure after that point would be painful for them. In a statement released on Tuesday, Franks referred to 20-week fetuses as “innocent and defenseless children who can not only feel pain, but who can survive outside of the womb in most cases, and who are torturously killed without even basic anesthesia.”
In fact, doctors agree that fetuses cannot survive outside the womb until about 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy, which is considered to be the legal point of viability. At less than 21 weeks, no delivered baby has ever survived. Plus, scientific research has repeatedly confirmed that fetuses cannot feel pain until after they are viable; indeed, even the researchers who are trying to learn more about fetal pain don’t want their findings to be used to justify abortion bans.
Nonetheless, 20-week abortion bans have become increasingly popular on the state level. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive rights policies, nine states currently cut off legal abortion access at 20 weeks based on the assumption that fetuses can feel pain at that point.
Abortion opponents believe that focusing on later abortions is a winning strategy because these restrictions can be construed as moderate. The right-wing Susan B. Anthony List, one of the biggest proponents of the proposed national 20-week abortion ban, calls it a “common sense” measure that is popular among the American people.
“As the 114th Congress is sworn in today, we are encouraged to see our pro-life allies wasting no time in the fight to protect the lives of the most vulnerable,” Susan B. Anthony List’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said in a statement on Tuesday.
But reproductive rights groups say that “fetal pain” measures represent a politically popular way of defining a policy that can force women to carry doomed pregnancies to term. Typically, later abortions — which are very rare — occur only in very desperate situations. Sometimes, women discover serious fetal health issues that weren’t evident earlier in their pregnancy, and choose to prevent their unborn child from suffering and dying outside the womb. Other times, low-income women are forced to delay abortion until that point because it takes them that long to save up the money for it.
A 2013 poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood found that when voters learn more about those reasons why a woman may need a later procedure, they oppose 20-week abortion bans.