Republicans and Democrats sparred on Capitol Hill on Thursday over a bill to ban late-term abortions in the District, even as the measure’s author is moving to expand the fight beyond the city’s borders.
The District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would ban abortions in the city after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except to save the life of the mother, under the much-debated theory that fetuses at that age and beyond can feel pain. The measure is the same as one that was defeated by the House last summer, but Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the bill’s chief sponsor, decided to up the stakes this year by declaring his intent to amend the bill to apply to the entire country.
That move widened the measure’s scope but also made it less of a rallying cry for the District. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) did not attend the hearing, and there was little visible presence by other local officials or activists.
Last year’s hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution was highlighted by Franks’s refusal to allow Norton to testify; he had offered to let her be the committee minority’s lone witness, but she wanted to appear in addition to that person. Her absence from the witness table prompted vocal complaints from Democrats on the panel and in the party leadership.
This time, Franks granted Norton’s request to testify, but she decided not to appear after he made clear he planned to expand the bill’s purview. That will happen at a bill markup, which Franks expects to have in “the next month or two.”
“The votes are there to do that,” Franks said of amending the bill.
Before that decision, Norton and other District advocates had complained about the legislation’s narrow scope, accusing Republicans of once again using the city as a petri dish to experiment with social policies opposed by D.C. residents.
“As we have always argued, the intent of my anti-choice colleagues in pursuing a D.C.-only abortion ban bill was to use the District of Columbia to get a federal imprimatur in their effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they thought they could do so in a stealth way by using the District,” Norton said in a recent news release.
The case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor recently convicted of murder, has drawn new attention to the subject of late-term abortion and helped motivate Franks to aim his sights higher.
“Protecting pain-capable unborn babies is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” Franks said at the hearing. “It is a test of our humanity.”
Franks invited two doctors and a nurse to testify about the details of various abortion procedures and make the case that fetuses at 20 weeks and beyond almost certainly can feel pain. Many scientists disagree with that notion, or say the question is far from settled.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said Franks was using the criminal code “to settle a scientific question on which there is no consensus in the field.”
The 2012 bill reached the House floor and got 220 votes in support, but it failed because it was considered under a fast-track procedure that required the backing of two-thirds of the chamber to pass. Franks says he expects that the measure, which currently has 120 co-sponsors, would get a floor vote again this year.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has introduced a companion bill in his chamber, although he has not indicated whether he plans to make it apply nationwide.