If you were wondering why anti-abortion advocates were so keen on getting the Kermit Gosnell trial into the daily cable news cycle this spring, look no further than HR 1797: the reintroduced "D.C. Pain Capable Unborn Protection Act," a bill that would ban abortions at 20 weeks, which has been amended to apply on a national level. The bill, introduced and amended by Republican representative Trent Franks, the Chair of the Justice Committee's Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee, was the subject of a House panel today. By introducing the legislation now, citing Gosnell, Franks et al. were hoping that the Gosnell trial would provide them with their very own "gun control" moment in the national conversation. By the looks of things, they didn't really get it.
The "D.C. Pain Capable Unborn Protection Act" relies on something called the fetal pain standard to outlaw abortions past 20 weeks. A handful of states have passed laws using this standard, even though the science behind it is contested, and the laws violate current constitutionally protected rights. In Arizona, a federal court struck down a similar law this week, citing a series of Supreme Court decisions that protect a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is "viable." If this bill became law (which seems unlikely), both sides of the abortion debate know that it would open a door to another Supreme Court challenge to abortion law, and that's the actual endgame here.
To be sure, today's hearing did rely on testimony from some well-known anti-abortion advocates in the medical community, like Anthony Levatino and Dr. Maureen Condic. But this bill has been introduced before in 2012, when it failed. This time, the intended trump card was not the medical testimony, but the emotional content of the Gosnell case.
Here's how Franks talked about the bill in a press release this week:
"The case of Kermit Gosnell shocked the sensibilities of millions of Americans. However, the crushing fact is that abortions on babies just like the ones killed by Kermit Gosnell have been happening hundreds of times per day, every single day, for the past 40 years....If America truly understands that horrifying reality, hearts and laws will change."
He reiterated that in the hearing today, as reported by Sarah Posner:
Rep. Trent Franks calls Gosnell "true face" of abortion in America. #HR1797— Sarah Posner (@sarahposner) May 23, 2013
And in the hearing, prepared testimony reiterated the importance of the case to changing current abortion law. Here's Jill Stanek:
"The Kermit Gosnell case provides further evidence that the lines between illegal infanticide and legal feticide, both via abortion, have become blurred....It is easy to be horrified by heart-wrenching stories such as these, and to imagine the torture abortion survivors endure as they are being killed.But it is somehow not so easy for some to envision preborn babies the same age being tortured as they are killed by similar methods."
Advocates were hoping that the Gosnell trial would provide an opportunity to evangelize on a long-running social issue with the backing of a headline-grabbing, emotionally-charged story. Today's hearing speaks to the limits of their success: while it's all over the anti-abortion media sphere, you'll be hard-pressed to find in-depth coverage of the panel from more mainstream sources.