On Tuesday, just after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, House Republicans aren’t spending the day debating gun legislation to try to save American lives. They aren’t scrambling for better solutions to Puerto Rico’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, either.
Instead, these “pro-life” lawmakers are voting to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy nationwide. The vote on the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act of 2017 was scheduled by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy early last week, but the attack in Las Vegas that killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 did nothing to change his plan. (The House is expected to delay a vote on a gun silencer bill that had been slated for this week.) The Trump White House even made a point of endorsing the abortion ban on Monday.
Meanwhile, as if to taunt the irony gods, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin argued after the Vegas massacre that “you can’t regulate evil” when it comes to guns. But just one day later, that’s precisely what Republicans are trying to do: regulate away what they consider the evils of abortion. What’s more, they’re trying to force more women to bear unwanted children just days after Congress allowed funding to lapse for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and just a week since the GOP’s final botched effort to take away health insurance from tens of millions of Americans.
Only a tiny fraction of abortions happen at 20 weeks gestation or later – less than 2 percent, according to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control study – but the women who get them often need them desperately.
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The bill the House is voting on Tuesday includes only narrow exceptions for rape, incest and saving a woman’s life. It makes no exceptions for women who discover fetal anomalies late in their pregnancy – which seems almost deliberately cruel, since many serious or fatal anomalies can’t even be detected before a woman’s 20-week ultrasound. There are also no exceptions for women who need a later abortion due to serious health issues that fall short of being lethal. Even conditions like diabetes or multiple sclerosis wouldn’t count unless they are likely to kill the woman outright.
This leaves doctors with an impossible choice: ignore their medical judgment and fail to perform the procedure that’s best for their patient, or risk a felony conviction and five years in jail. And even though women aren’t supposed to face criminal prosecution under the bill, never underestimate an overzealous district attorney – women can and do get caught up in the criminal justice system for pregnancy-related laws that were never supposed to apply to them.
Why 20 weeks, specifically? Anti-abortion activists make a scientifically far-fetched, unproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. Yet they undermine their already dubious argument when they seem unable to decide when 20 weeks is, exactly. They write bills using unscientific, inconsistent language to describe gestational age – which means that in practice, some proposed “20-week bans” could apply to pregnancies as early as 18 weeks, and others as late as 22 weeks.
So if the exact 20-week mark isn’t that important to anti-abortion advocates, what is? The answer is simple: laying a foundation to chip away at Roe v. Wade and eventually ban abortion in America.
Under Roe, the state can’t interfere with a woman’s right to choose before a fetus is viable outside the womb – which usually happens around 24 to 26 weeks, but is different for every pregnancy. If advocates managed to convince the courts to adopt a new standard for viability with a hard deadline, however, it could upend the whole legal framework for Roe.
At the federal level, a 20-week abortion ban is mostly theoretical for now. The bill doesn’t have a prayer of getting the 60 votes it would need to pass the Senate, where it also failed in 2013.
But thanks to the rapid spread of model legislation penned by activist groups, 17 states now have 20-week bans on the books – despite the likelihood that they wouldn’t stand up in court if challenged.
Those bans can put women through hell. Just last year, Taylor Mahaffey was forced by the state of Texas to spend four agonizing days delivering her stillborn baby rather than simply let a doctor pop her amniotic sac, which would have technically been an abortion. Other women have found themselves forced to cross state lines when they’re already dealing with the heartbreak of losing a wanted pregnancy.
Sickening human consequences. Standing in the way of science. Sacrificing good public policy to a far-right activist agenda. This week, as Americans grapple with yet another horrific mass shooting, all of this sounds acutely familiar: Gun control advocates have been perennially frustrated by the GOP’s refusal to even consider any new gun regulations.
Restricting abortion doesn’t stop women from having abortions. but there’s good evidence that legislation limiting the number of guns can result in fewer gun deaths. And Americans overwhelmingly support both Roe v. Wade and many gun control measures. Somehow, on both these issues, Republicans manage to be on the wrong side of both evidence and public opinion, and they still haven’t paid a price for it – but too many innocent Americans have.