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Bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks sails through House

Pro Choice Wmc News
A pro-life bill passed by the House claims fetuses can feel pain at and after 20 weeks in utero. That argument isn’t supported by science. (Women's eNews)

With a 237 to 189 vote, a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks in the U.S. was approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday. The “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” now moves on to the Senate, where it needs 60 percent of the vote to succeed. Trump has indicated he will sign the bill—a promise he made during his campaign, when he told voters the law “would end painful late-term abortions nationwide.”  

If enacted, abortions after 20 weeks would still be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or if the mother’s life were in danger. Under the proposed law, any medical practitioner who performs an abortion after that time limit would be subject to five years in prison, a fine, or both. (Women seeking an abortion would not be criminalized.)  

As the act’s name suggests, the crux is the claim that fetuses can feel pain at and after 20 weeks in utero. Unfortunately for the bill’s authors, that argument isn’t supported by science. Instead, the best available science demonstrates that fetuses can’t feel pain until the third trimester, which begins at 27 weeks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In part, this is because the fetal nervous system doesn’t develop until the third trimester, and because neurons that extend from the spinal cord to the part of the brain that senses pain don’t develop until weeks 23 or 24, according to the study.  

The Centers for Disease Control says most abortion procedures are performed 13 or fewer weeks into a woman’s pregnancy, 7 percent are performed during weeks 14 to 20, and less than 2 percent are performed after 21 weeks. The situations that might cause a woman to wait until 20 or more weeks into her pregnancy to seek an abortion vary, but the primary reason is that comprehensive sonograms and ultrasounds used to detect severe birth defects happen between weeks 18 and 20. These include brain defects like anencephaly, extreme chromosomal disorders, and other significant malformations in the fetuses’ development.  

The concept of banning abortion access after 20 weeks didn’t start in Washington. Seventeen states have already passed legislation prohibiting the procedure at roughly 20 to 22 weeks, according to U.S.-based research and policy organization the Guttmacher Institute, which also notes the 20-week ban is at odds with Roe v. Wade.  

All but three of the “aye” votes on Tuesday came from Republicans; the Democrats who voted in favor of the Act are Reps. Daniel Lipinski (Illinois), Collin Peterson (Minnesota), and Henry Cuellar (Texas). Among the Republican votes was Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, who announced on Wednesday that he would retire after reports of his urging a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair to get an abortion were revealed.  

This is the third time since 2013 that the Republican-led Senate has passed a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks. The difference, of course, is that advocates of the legislation now have the president’s support. In spite of Trump’s endorsement, the bill is unlikely to make it through the Senate, where Democrats blocked similar bills twice before. On Monday, GOP Whip Sen. John Cornyn told reporters that the bill was “not a near-term priority.”

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