The nation's capital once again served as a battleground in the national debate over abortion Thursday as a Congressional subcommittee aired a bill that would ban abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The proposal, introduced by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., is based on the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain at a gestational age of 20 weeks or older.
Nebraska was the first state to pass such a law, and seven other states, including Arizona, have done the same. The legislation is being pushed by the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group that has made the bill its top legislative priority on Capitol Hill this year.
Opponents say the bill would violate women's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy in consultation with their doctors, including in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormalities. They also say it intrudes upon the District's self-rule.
With Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, the bill has little chance of becoming law this year, but anti-abortion activists say they're prepared to fight for years until it is enacted, and abortion-rights groups have mobilized to defeat it. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has pledged his support for the legislation.
“The gruesome late-term abortions of unborn children who can feel pain is in my opinion the greatest human rights atrocity in the United States today,” Franks said Thursday at the hearing.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, compared the bill to the ban on partial-birth abortions that became law in 2003 and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007. That bill only banned a specific late-term abortion procedure. The 20-week measure goes farther by banning all procedures beyond that gestational age.
While the goal of the legislative effort is to reduce the number of abortions and the pain experienced by fetuses, Johnson said, “ultimately, the Supreme Court has to say that this is OK to do.”
Opponents said the bill was part of an effort by anti-abortion activists to roll back the Supreme Court's 1973 decision that made abortion legal.
“This is a serious attempt to take back Roe v. Wade, at the federal level, at the Supreme Court level,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. If the bill makes it to the House floor, Norton added, it would “seal the fate” of Republicans in 2012 being associated with a “war on women.”
Ted Miller, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the bill underscores the importance of re-electing President Barack Obama and maintaining the Democratic majority in the Senate.
In the District, abortion is legal before a fetus is considered viable outside the womb and after viability to protect the life or health of the mother. In 2004, the D.C. Council wiped an outdated criminal ban on abortions off the books. Anti-abortion activists have claimed that makes the city unusually permissive on abortion. District officials and abortion-rights supporters say the district law follows the precedent established by Roe v. Wade.
At Thursday's hearing, the subcommittee's Republican leadership called three physicians who testified that they believe abortions after 20 weeks are inhumane and that fetuses can feel pain at that gestational age.
Dr. Anthony Levitano, an obstetrician who once performed second-trimester abortions but has since renounced the practice, described the process of extracting fetal body parts from the uterus in graphic detail.
“If you refuse to believe that this procedure inflicts severe pain on that unborn child, think again,” Levitano said.
Democrats noted that there is no scientific consensus on fetal pain, pointing to a 2010 conclusion by Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that fetuses lack the nerve capacity to feel pain before at least 24 weeks.
Christy Zink, a George Washington University professor and District resident who had an abortion at 21 weeks after an MRI revealed that her fetus had a significant brain abnormality, testified against the bill.
“Its very premise -- that it prevents pain -- is a lie,” Zink said, adding that her child, if carried to term, “would have experienced near-constant pain. If he had survived the pregnancy, which was not certain, he might have never left the hospital.”
In recent years, Congress has routinely barred the District from spending local tax dollars on abortions for poor women. Last year, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., drafted a bill to give the city more control over its local budget that also would have made the abortion-funding ban permanent. District leaders rejected the bill because of that provision.
Since 1988, the district has been allowed to fund abortions with local tax dollars only when Democrats have controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency.