On Tuesday, the House of Representatives will vote on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a measure spearheaded by Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that would cut off legal access to abortion services at 20 weeks after fertilization. It represents the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in either chamber over the past decade. Here’s what you need to know about this attack on women’s reproductive rights — and how it fits into a broader, coordinated nationwide campaign to slowly chip away at abortion access:
It’s based on the scientifically-disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain before the third trimester of pregnancy.
So-called “fetal pain” measures are based on junk science that represents a minority position among medical professionals. Most doctors don’t believe that fetuses can feel pain until much later in pregnancy, after the point of viability (generally considered to be around 24 weeks), and scientific research has repeatedly confirmed this position. Nevertheless, abortion opponents have successfully stoked emotional outrage surrounding later-term abortion — particularly following the high-profile murder trial of illegal abortion provider Kermit Gosnell — by twisting the facts to make it appear that these abortions are always barbaric procedures.
It has sparked more controversy over Republicans’ attitudes toward rape.
The original version of Franks’ legislation did not include an exception for victims of rape or incest. Defending the lack of an exception in these cases, the Arizona congressman last week claimed that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.” Franks is just the latest Republican to make an offensive comment about rape victims, and his comments inspired comparisons to former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) infamous assertion that women don’t often get pregnant from “legitimate rape” because the body “has ways of shutting that whole thing down.” Following the controversy that erupted from his statements, Franks revised the legislation at the last minute to include an exemption for survivors of rape and incest — but only if rape victims first report the sexual crime to the police, and if incest victims are minors.
Abortions after 20 weeks are already extremely rare, and the women who need them are usually in the most desperate of circumstances.
Although Franks claimed he didn’t need to legislate rape victims’ reproductive rights because the instances of pregnancies resulting from rape are “very low,” the instances of abortions after 20 weeks are actually much lower than that. Pregnancy results from rape an estimated 5 percent of the time, while abortions after 20 weeks represent just one percent of all abortions. The women who seek out this type of later abortion procedure tend to fall into one of two categories: the economically disadvantaged women who need to delay abortion until they can save up the money for it, and the women who discover serious fetal health issues only after their pregnancy has advanced. Criminalizing abortion after 20 weeks will force some women to give birth to fetuses with no brain function — or other types of fatal anomalies — and watch their children suffer outside of the womb during their short lives.
The national legislation initially started out as an abortion restriction for the women who live in Washington, DC.
Franks has repeatedly attempted to impose his anti-abortion agenda on the women living in the nation’s capitol. Because the District of Columbia does not have its own representation in Congress, lawmakers from other areas often use it as their legislative playground. Franks’ fetal pain measure failed last year, but that didn’t stop him from re-introducing it — and eventually expanding it to apply to women in every state. The Republican lawmaker said that Gosnell’s crimes compelled him to restrict abortion access not just for DC women, but for women across the entire country.