Political Posturing: The Federal 20-Week Abortion Ban

U.S. Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona) of the 8th congressional district speaking at the Arizona Republican Party 2014 election victory party at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona’s 8th congressional district speaking at the Arizona Republican Party 2014 election victory party in Phoenix. Photo: Gage Skidmore

The idea of a 20-week abortion ban is nothing new for the Grand Canyon State. In 2012, the Arizona Legislature enacted a law prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases of narrowly defined medical emergencies. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the law under clear Supreme Court precedent, and the high court itself later declined to hear Arizona’s appeal.

Even though the Supreme Court refused to uphold Arizona’s initial 20-week ban, the issue remained a central policy concern for Arizona politicians. In June 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The bill, sponsored by Arizona’s own Rep. Trent Franks, never reached the floor of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Almost all late-term abortions are due to a life-threatening condition or severe fetal abnormalities.

Yet, despite the outright failure of Arizona politicians to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, either here in Arizona or at the federal level, they’re back at it again. This year, Rep. Franks successfully spearheaded a bill nearly identical to the one he introduced two years ago. Approved by the House earlier this month, H.R. 36 would severely restrict access to abortion services in the fifth month of pregnancy.

Notably, even Franks’ most recent attack on women’s reproductive rights did not pass the House without controversy; the current edition of H.R. 36 is actually the revised version of a bill introduced in January. A handful of Republicans objected to the original draft because it mandated that women who suffered rape or incest must report all crimes to law enforcement before being eligible to receive a late-term abortion.

The updated bill still contains a mandatory reporting provision for minors. It further requires that a woman who has been raped obtain counseling services from a licensed physician at least two days prior to her abortion. This counseling must take place at a facility other than her abortion provider. And, of course, H.R. 36 effectively bans abortions after 20 weeks, except under a handful of extreme circumstances.

H.R. 36 is not an isolated anomaly proposed by some rogue congressman, but rather part of the Republican Party’s broader agenda to ban abortion completely. In the last four months, more than 300 abortion-restricting bills have been introduced in state legislatures. During the same span, Congress has attempted to restrict access to safe and legal abortion nearly 30 times.

The formal title of H.R. 36, the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Act,” demonstrates the extent to which the Republican Party is willing to disregard science in favor of ideological extremism.

“Published research shows that pain sensation begins later in gestation. The Journal of the American Medical Association synthesized data from many studies and concluded that the evidence indicates fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” says Jodi Liggett, Planned Parenthood Arizona’s director of public policy.

Liggett continues:

The bill title is intentionally provocative and emotionally manipulative. This is not how serious policymakers go about their work, and certainly not how to build broad bipartisan support for anything. Of course, that is not the real goal — this is the work of extremists whose real goal is to divide America and try to make regular citizens believe that those who support women’s health care are a godless, callous minority. The contempt that these extremists have for science is astonishing.

The GOP’s unhealthy obsession with abortion not only detracts from other issues like poverty and education, it also places women’s lives in danger. Forcing women to receive counseling 48 hours prior to an abortion is medically unnecessary, and it blatantly ignores the fact that most abortion providers already offer unbiased counseling services. The requirement’s sole purpose is to restrict access to safe, legal, and possibly life-saving abortion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99 percent of abortions in the United States are performed before a woman has reached 21 weeks of pregnancy. When a woman requests a late-term abortion, it is almost always due to a life-threatening condition or severe fetal abnormalities.

The decision to undergo an abortion should be a decision between a woman and her physician, and it should be a decision made without political interference. By passing laws like H.R. 36 that restrict women’s access to health care, Congress is attempting to regulate medical practices that it cannot possibly claim to understand. We would never allow Trent Franks to treat a sinus infection or a broken arm. Why, then, should we allow him to make decisions about women’s reproductive health? When Congress enacts laws that tell doctors how to do their jobs, it undermines the practice of medicine and prevents patients from receiving top quality care.

Apart from being a harmful and unnecessary breach of Congressional authority, the GOP’s latest attack on women does not reflect the opinions of the American public. Polls indicate that a solid majority of voters, including 62 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Democrats, and 71 percent of independents, believe Congress and state legislatures should be spending their time on issues other than abortion. Moreover, when voters are given information about the impact of 20-week abortion bans, they overwhelmingly oppose them.

“Americans are sick of hyperbolic politicians who use the power of their office to score cheap, transitory political victories,” says Liggett. “They want Congress in particular to quit posturing and get to work repairing our infrastructure, creating jobs, and resolving foreign crises.”

Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he intends to bring H.R. 36 to the Senate floor for a vote. At that point, the future of women’s reproductive health will be at the mercy of 100 politicians who are completely unqualified to make informed medical decisions, and whose ideological agendas do not necessarily correspond to the best interests of the American public. It is now up to us as voters to show Congress that a woman’s ability to live freely in the United States is dependent upon her ability to make decisions about her own body.