Photo: Elvert Barnes | Flickr
A bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation is unlikely to pass in Congress, but the anti-abortion movement has claimed several other victories as last week they held their first March for Life rally of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act was introduced last fall in the House by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), and a few days later in the Senate by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The measure would require that a physician make a determination of the age of a fetus before performing an abortion, and would bar abortions beyond 20 months post-fertilization.
“So many children are alive, healthy, and growing today who were born prematurely at five months pregnancy,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), one of the 45 Senate co-signers of the bill, said in a statement. “We should not allow elective abortions past five months of pregnancy, especially when science shows that unborn babies feel pain at this stage.”
The bill was approved by the House on a 237-189 vote, with only three Democrats voting in favor.
However, with Republicans holding a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate, passage is unlikely. Supporters of the measure would have to round up 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a certain filibuster by pro-choice Democrats.
“The 20-week bill is very important, but I don’t see it going anywhere in the Senate,” said Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for Americans United for Life, a group that seeks legal protections “for human life from conception to natural death.”
Nonetheless, Forsythe told Healthline the bill was a “fresh approach” that shifts the late-term abortion conversation away from the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
That ruling allowed for abortion restrictions at the point that a fetus is viable outside the womb — a vague standard that has been difficult to define, according to Forsythe.
“The bill is important symbolically to show that the viability rule is wrong and that abortion should have a clear gestational limit,” he said.
In January, the House approved another bill that would impose criminal penalties on doctors who fail to provide medical care to infants born alive during an abortion procedure.
That legislation is similarly unlikely to advance in the Senate.
Planned Parenthood officials called that measure “unnecessary” and “full of inflammatory language intentionally designed to politicize the provision of healthcare.”
Support for abortion rights
The most recent data from the Pew Research Center concludes that, “As of 2017, public support for legal abortion remains as high as it has been in two decades of polling.”
According to the Pew poll, 57 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 40 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
However, as pro-choice groups celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision this week, both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans and President Trump has strongly embraced anti-abortion issues, which are a core concern of his political base.
In his speech, Trump decried America’s abortion laws as “some of the most permissive … anywhere in the world.”
“Under my administration, we will always defend the very first right in the Declaration of Independence, and that is the right to life,” the president said.
Trump touted policy changes designed to restrict abortion funding overseas, provide legal protection to healthcare providers who object to providing services to patients based on their religious beliefs, and give states the ability to restrict Medicaid funding to groups that provide abortions, notably Planned Parenthood.
“We are protecting the sanctity of life and the family as the foundation of our society,” he told the anti-abortion rally attendees.
Trump also used the occasion to rescind a warning issued under the Obama administration that state Medicaid programs that disqualify abortion providers from Medicaid funding could come under scrutiny by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees funding for the federal healthcare program.
Anti-abortion groups see opportunity
From the perspective of opponents of legal abortion, Trump’s actions have been significant, even if the long-term goal — overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision — remains elusive.
“This is the best political climate for pro-life work in Congress and the states since Roe v. Wade was ruled on in 1973,” said Forsythe.
In May 2017, the Trump administration expanded the ban on U.S. foreign aid funding of abortions. That order bars recipients of U.S. aid from using even non-U.S. funds to provide abortions, abortion counseling, or even to advocate for relaxed local laws on abortion.
The day before Trump’s Right to Life speech, his administration created a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
The Trump administration also issued a proposed rule that would allow healthcare providers to opt out of providing healthcare services based on their personal religious or moral beliefs.
“America’s doctors and nurses are dedicated to saving lives and should not be bullied out of the practice of medicine simply because they object to performing abortions against their conscience,” said OCR Director Roger Severino.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) said the proposal would set up a “two-tier system for healthcare, one for ‘good Christians’ and one for everyone else.”
“This broad rule could mean that a woman is denied the ability to access an abortion, even though she should legally be able to do so,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “A patient could be denied birth control simply because their pharmacist or doctor doesn’t believe they should be able to take it.”
“This rule could mean that a family is unable to get quality medical care for their child because the parents happen to be lesbians, or that a transgender person is unable to get basic medical care because of their gender identity. Patients’ healthcare will suffer if this becomes law.”