On October 3rd, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban abortion occurring 20-weeks post-fertilization. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, introduced by Representative Trent Franks (R-Arz.) would allow for the prosecution of anyone attempting to perform an abortion at 20 weeks or later in the pregnancy, providing exceptions in the cases of rape or incest or if the pregnant person’s life is at risk. However, a person attempting to obtain an abortion at 20-weeks or later would be protected from prosecution.[i]
As the name suggests, the bill claims that a fetus can feel pain "at least by 20 weeks after fertilization, if not earlier".[ii] However, there is no existing scientific research to support this assertion. In fact, research in this area indicates that a fetus is unable to feel pain until the third trimester, well after the 20-weeks benchmark proposed in the bill.[iii] In a statement published in 2013, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that "neural circuitry necessary to distinguish touch from painful touch does not, in fact, develop until late in the third trimester."[iv]
This bill not only lacks scientific basis, but would have important consequences for people’s health and access to abortion. Among the reasons someone would seek an abortion after 20-weeks, some relate directly to health complications such as complication in the pregnancy or fetal congenital disorder (many of these can only be detected around 20 weeks).[v] Passing this bill would remove people's access to abortion in these situations, and could put their lives and health at risk.[vi]
The bill would also disproportionately impact people with a lower income. People often require time to save the money required for an abortion procedure as well as for the costs associated with travel, lodging, and childcare. In some cases, they may not be able to save enough until after the 20-week mark.[vii] Restricting abortion at 20 weeks effectively prohibits access to abortion for people whose fetus is facing a fatal abnormality, and for those who are unable to obtain the funds they need earlier on in their pregnancy.
Bill H.R. 36 is not based on sound scientific evidence and would have important consequences for people seeking an abortion. Although it was passed by the House of Representatives, the bill now goes to the Senate for a vote, and requires 60 votes to pass. However, because Republicans only hold 52 seats, this bill is widely expected to fail.[viii]
[i] Tatum, Sophie. (2017, October 3). Houses passes ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/03/politics/house-vote-abortion-after-20-week-ban/index.html
[ii] Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, H.R. 36, 115th Cong. (2017).
[iii] Miller, Sara G. (2016, May 16). Do Fetuses Feel Pain? What the Science Says. Live Science. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/54774-fetal-pain-anesthesia.html
[iv] The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2013, July). Facts are Important. Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/-/media/Departments/Government-Relations-and-Outreach/FactAreImportFetalPain.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20150622T1655391547
[v] Foster, D., & Kimport, K. (2013). Who Seeks Abortions at or After 20 Weeks? Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 45(4), 210-218. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1363/4521013
[vi] Goldberg, Jordan. (2012, April 11). Re: House Bill 2036. Retrieved from https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/HB%202036%20veto%20letter%20final.PDF
[vii] Foster, D., & Kimport, K. (2013). Who Seeks Abortions at or After 20 Weeks? Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 45(4), 210-218. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1363/4521013
[viii] Carney, Jordain. (2017, October 16). McConnell: 20-week abortion ban will get Senate vote. The Hill. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/355685-mcconnell-20-week-abortion-ban-will-get-senate-vote