Policy/Biz

House Passes Symbolic Ban On Late-Term Abortions Past 20 Weeks

Representative Trent Franks defends abortion ban in front of U.S. capitol
In an act of defiance against the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, congressional Republicans moved to limit abortion to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. U.S. Congressman Trent Franks

Congressional conservatives on Tuesday voted to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the House, a bill that would make late-term abortions illegal past 20 weeks of pregnancy. 

Primarily a symbolic act, the vote was meant to defy the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion until 24 weeks. The bill will most likely be defeated in the Senate, and may not even be introduced or put to a vote. The White House expressed that the legislation would be vetoed by President Obama.

Despite the Act's probably demise in the upper chamber, the vote is still significant. In recent years, Congress and state legislatures have moved to restrict access to abortions through requiring parental consent, restricting federal funding, and limiting healthcare providers' ability to perform abortions.

The act, led by Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, passed in the House 228-196, garnering the support of six Democrats and the majority of the House's 234 Republicans. About 88 percent of House Republicans are white males.

House Speaker John Boehner, Republican from Ohio, said the vote was intended to express outrage over the actions of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was recently convicted for three counts of first-degree murder, manslaughter, and for performing abortions past the federal limit of 24 weeks.

Late last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called late-term abortions "sacred ground" when commenting on the abortion bill.  

Similar bans on abortions past 20 weeks have appeared in state legislatures, which have been struck down by courts. Abortions are permitted until 24 weeks of pregnancy, because that is the point in time when a fetus becomes viable and could survive outside the womb.

As evident by its title, the bill's authors justified the vote by the belief that fetuses begin to feel pain at 20 weeks. Although the ability of a fetus to feel pain has not been a major factor in legal debates over abortion, the concept of fetal pain has been invoked by many anti-abortion activists to restrict access.

A scientific review of existing literature on the subject published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that little evidence exists supporting the idea that fetuses can feel pain before 24 weeks. Electroencephalography studies suggest that pain perception probably does not exist before 29 weeks.

Late-term abortions are rare, and the term "late" itself has been a point of debate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Guttmacher Institute, only 1.3 percent of abortions performed in 2009 occurred beyond 20 weeks, or 15,600 of the 1.2 million abortions. The majority — 92 percent of abortions — were performed before 14 weeks.

 

Source: Lee SJ, Ralston HJ, Drey EA, Partridge JC, Rosen MA. Fetal pain: a systematic multidisciplinary review of the evidence. JAMA. 2005.

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