Republican Representative Trent Franks wanted this May to be the sequel to America's "Newtown moment" on gun control. But instead of pushing for background checks, Franks is trying to pass a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Even though his pitch — America would be so outraged by the Gosnell trial that they'd support, even demand, legislation similar to his — didn't pan out, the bill itself is still making its way through the House.
Today, the bill (which originally only applied to D.C) was passed along by a House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Franks in an expanded form — if it were to become law, which seems unlikely, it would now apply nationwide. The bill will move to the full committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va, who has a pretty consistent anti-abortion voting record. Franks, in a statement, declared today a personal win:
"I understand the unfortunate reality that today's markup will be surrounded by some degree of controversy. But we, as a nation, find ourselves at a point at which we don't offer unborn children even the most basic protections – even protections we extend to animals and property. The trial of Kermit Gosnell exposed late abortions for what they really are: relocated infanticide...I pray we use this as a 'teachable moment,' in the words of President Obama, and can agree that, at the very least, we are better than dismembering babies who can feel every excruciating moment. I look forward to the bill's moving on the full judiciary committee and to an eventual vote on this necessary, common-sense measure."
Franks's bill is called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and is similar to a state law in Franks's home state of Arizona, recently struck down in a federal court. It would ban abortions after 20 weeks, with exceptions only if the mother's life is in danger. In other words, later-term abortions for pregnancies resulting from incest, rape, and those that could pose significant (but non-lethal) health threats to the mother would be outlawed. The percentage of abortions affected in the country by the bill would be tiny — just 1.5 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks. So why would anti-abortion activists aim so low? Because the bill, if it became law, and if it survived a constitutional challenge (reminder: those are pretty big "if's"), would change the constitutional standard for determining the legality of abortions. As we explained before, the cut-off point of 20 weeks is based on what's called the fetal pain standard, which relies on a scientifically disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain at that point. That's against the precedent set by the Supreme Court, which has ruled that abortions are legal so long as the fetus isn't "viable," which is usually around 24 weeks. Any law like Franks's would, by going against that precedent, likely see a swift challenge in court, which is exactly what anti-abortion opponents are hoping for.
Today's Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee markup of the bill ended with a 6-4 vote down party lines. Democrats on the subcommittee, noting that the bill was unconstitutional, also objected to the visual their discussion created: the 10-person subcommittee is entirely made up of men. Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan put it this way, according to the Huffington Posts's report on the markup: "No good has ever come from an all-male committee deciding the law about a woman's body. This is not appropriate."