U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) addresses the crowd at his victory party Nov. 2, 2004 in Phoenix. Franks has prioposed a bill that would ban almost all abortions in the District beyond 20 weeks after conception. (MATT YORK/The Associated Press)

The District has been cast in a Capitol Hill morality play, thanks to Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and the National Right to Life Committee.

Franks, with the backing of the activist group, is leading an effort to put new restrictions on abortions performed in the city via the “District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” The bill, which Franks introduced Monday, would prohibit abortions 20 weeks post-fertilization.

It represents, as Franks put it, “a different angle of view” on the abortion issue as it relates to the District. Until now, Congress has generally limited its intervention to preventing the D.C. government from funding abortions with public money. The Franks bill goes further, seeking to ban some abortions regardless of who pays for them.

“It would address the pain and suffering of children who have done nothing wrong,” he said Tuesday. “It will emphasize the humanity of the child and the inhumanity of what is being done to them.”

It’s a deeply held moral position for Franks, a veteran opponent of abortion rights — one that happens to run counter to another deeply held moral position: the belief that city residents ought to be left to manage their own affairs.

“We don’t have a position on the question of choice,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, the activist group. “But we do have a very strong position on who gets to decide that question, and it’s D.C. residents.”

Zherka and others are gearing up to fight the formidable anti-abortion bloc on Capitol Hill, made all the more difficult because the bill is more than a throwaway attention grab from a back-bencher. Franks is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that will be handling the legislation, and the bill has the co-sponsorship of two powerful committee chairmen — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) of Judiciary and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of Oversight — putting it in prime position for a fast track to the House floor. (A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate; Franks declined to address those plans, citing “strategic reasons.”)

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 its 2012 agenda. In setting the 20-week threshold, the group cites research showing that fetuses start to react to pain around that time. The threshold also might allow the legislation to pass constitutional muster — state bills already passed in Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma have avoided court challenges. Exceptions to the post-20-week ban are allowed only when “necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness or physical injury.”

The provisions are wholly in keeping with anti-abortion orthodoxy. But why apply it just in the District? Why not introduce a bill that applies nationwide? So asks Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.): “They could absolutely get a vote on a nationwide bill,” she said. “That’s why I resent what they’re doing. . . . It’s just easier to go after the District.”

While noting some sympathy for the moral objections of those made to follow laws passed by people they didn’t elect, Franks cites the Constitution and the authority it gives Congress to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” in the capital. “Even a good lawyer couldn’t twist that one,” he said.

Douglas Johnson, National Right to Life’s legislative director, said the group did not consider consulting the locally elected D.C. Council, which would have the power to make such a law. “There may be matters of local consequence where the local delegation is appropriate,” he said. “This is matter of life and death, and we think the Congress needs to address it.”

The liberal D.C. Council would have little interest in taking up the bill, of course, so why bother when plenty of conservative members of Congress stand ready to take up the legislation?

“In the seat of freedom,” Franks said, “that is the place we need to address the question” of legal abortion on demand.

Meanwhile, residents of that seat of freedom are left wondering just how much freedom they have.

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