A Republican congressman has the support of a major national activist group in an effort to put dramatic new restrictions on abortions performed in the District.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is planning to introduce the “District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” next week. The bill would prohibit the abortion of fetuses after 20 weeks after fertilization.
Franks is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that will likely be handling the bill, putting him in prime position to guide it to the House floor.
The bill is based on model legislation drafted and promoted by the National Right to Life Committee, which is making the D.C. legislation the centerpiece of a news conference Monday announcing its priorities for the coming year. Similar bills have been passed in state legislatures in Alabama, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Under the model legislation, exceptions to the post-20-week ban are allowed only when “the abortion is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, but not including psychological or emotional conditions or any claim or diagnosis that the woman will engage in conduct which she intends to result in her death.”
”While it will come as a shock to many Americans, in the capital of our nation, abortion now is allowed for any reason at any point in pregnancy,” says a NRLC news release. “Abortions are openly advertised and performed far past the point at which an unborn child becomes pain capable.”
National Right to Life says the 20-week threshold is based on research showing fetuses start to react to pain stimuli around that time. The threshold is thought to allow the legislation to pass constitutional muster; the state bills already passed have thus far avoided a court challenge.
Douglas Johnson, the committee’s legislative director, said the legislation is “part of a wave of bills” being introduced in state legislatures.
Johnson said the committee did not consider consulting the locally elected legislature, the D.C. Council, which would have the power to make such a law. “The District clause is among the most unequivocal clauses in the Constitution,” he said. “There may be matters of local consequence where the local delegation is appropriate. This is matter of life and death, and we think the Congress needs to address it.”
“In our view,” he added, “we think the capital city of the United States should not be the capital of causing torment to babies in the sixth month or later.”
The bill represents a new approach to the District from anti-abortion activists. Since 1996, Congress has sought to prevent the District government from funding abortions with public money via Medicaid or other public insurance programs. Those funding restrictions extended to both local and federal taxpayer dollars except for a period between 2009 and 2011, when the local funding ban was relaxed. Johnson said the bill is the first “in recent memory” to directly restrict all abortions, not just government-funded ones.
The bill has already raised the hackles of District autonomy activists.
Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, said his organization is gearing up to fight what can be a formidable anti-abortion lobby on Capitol Hill.
”We don’t have a position on the question of choice. But we do have a very strong position on who gets to decide that question, and it’s D.C. residents,” he said.
Zherka said the bill fits into a current trend of national conservative groups using the Congress’s power over the District to achieve national objectives. “They can’t achieve this goal nationally, and they’re picking on what they think is the weak kid in the schoolyard,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to increase is the response of progressives on the other side.”
UPDATE, 9 P.M.: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) released a statement Friday night vowing to oppose the bill: “We do not intend to succumb to the insatiable Republican obsession with interfering with the rights of women in our city,” she said. “... Instead of spending the recess focused on jumpstarting the economy or attending to the business of his own constituents, Rep. Franks appears to have used his time at home figuring out new ways to undemocratically usurp the local authority of American citizens who did not elect him and who have no way to hold him accountable. ... If Rep. Franks believes his bill represents sound policy, he should introduce a bill that applies to the entire country.”