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Abortion Opponents Try to Spin Murder Case Into Legislation

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., has introduced a federal bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks' gestation — six weeks into the second trimester. This is the second straight Congress he's done so, but this time he's broadened his bill to encompass all 50 states, not just D.C.
Matt York

As predicted, abortion opponents on Capitol Hill are wasting no time in their efforts to turn publicity over the recent murder conviction of abortion provider Kermit Gosnell to their legislative advantage.

Their latest goal: a federal ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., tried unsuccessfully to pass a ban on abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia in 2012. (Congress has special local authority over the nation's capital.) Franks, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, then reintroduced the bill in April.

And now Franks keeps mentioning Gosnell — who was convicted earlier this month of murdering three newborns and one of his female patients — as a major reason not just to pass the bill but to expand its reach nationwide.

"Kermit Gosnell is not an anomaly in this Fortune 500 enterprise of killing unborn children," Franks said at a hearing on the bill Thursday. "Rather, Kermit Gosnell is actually the true face of abortion on demand in America."

Backers of both the federal and state bills chose 20 weeks as the cutoff for abortion because, they say, that is roughly when a developing fetus can begin to feel pain. One of the witnesses at today's hearing, Maureen Condic, a neurobiologist from the University of Utah medical school, testified as much.

"Fetuses at 20 weeks post-fertilization have an increase in stress hormones in response to painful stimuli that can be eliminated by appropriate anesthesia, just as for an adult," she told the subcommittee.

Abortion-rights backers, not surprisingly, disagreed. They presented documents from a list of women's health groups, led by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, suggesting that the science is far from clear, but that most studies still say pain is unlikely before the third trimester of pregnancy (which begins at roughly 28 weeks' gestation).

The broader argument that congressional opponents of the bill make is simpler: Because 20 weeks is still before fetal viability, the bill is, pure and simple, unconstitutional, under current Supreme Court precedents.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., read from an appeals court ruling earlier this week that struck down a similar law in Arizona. "A woman has a constitutional right to choose to terminate her pregnancy before the fetus is viable," Nadler said. "A prohibition on the exercise of that rite is per se unconstitutional."

Opponents of the bill also worry that it lacks any exceptions that would allow abortions in cases of fetal anomaly, some of which cannot be detected prior to 20 weeks. Christy Zink of Washington D.C., was faced with one of those situations in 2009, 21 weeks into her second pregnancy.

"An MRI revealed that our baby was missing the central connective structure of the two parts of his brain," she testified. "What allows the brain to function as a whole was simply absent." There was other damage as well. "In effect, our baby was also missing one side of his brain."

Zink had an abortion, and later, a second child. But she told the subcommittee she fears for the doctors who cared for her, and for what might have been.

"If this bill had been passed before my pregnancy, I would have had to carry to term and give birth to a baby whom the doctors concurred had no chance of a life and who would have experienced near constant pain," she said.

Backers of the Franks bill say cases like Zink's are too rare to take into account. They don't worry much about the Supreme Court, either.

Before it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007, the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was struck down by every lower federal court that considered it," Douglas Johnson, of the National Right to Life Committee, said Wednesday at a news conference on the Franks bill. "Three U.S. district courts, [and] three U.S. courts of appeals all ruled it was in clear violation of Supreme Court precedents. But when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court they said otherwise."

Clearly that's what the bill's backers are hoping will happen again — if their proposed legislation gets that far.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie Rovner

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