Abortion Ban Proposed For D.C. Sparks Fierce Debate In Congress

A nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy would be difficult to push through both chambers of Congress, but Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is taking his chances on a consolation prize: a 20-week abortion ban in the District of Columbia.

The District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 3803) would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in Washington, D.C., unless the mother's life is in danger. Franks, the sponsor of the bill, held a congressional hearing on the bill on Thursday in which he called abortions after 20 weeks "the greatest human rights atrocity occurring on U.S soil."

Supreme Court precedent prevents U.S. states from banning abortions before the fetus is viable outside the womb, which doctors estimate to occur between 22 and 24 weeks of gestation. So far, seven conservative states have banned abortions after 20 weeks based on the highly contested claim that fetuses feel pain at that point.

The law has sparked more than just an abortion rights debate, because it allows representatives who were not elected by D.C. residents to write a law that affects their constitutionally protected right to have an abortion up until the fetus is viable outside of the womb. D.C.'s one elected representative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, has no vote in Congress and was denied the chance to testify against the bill at the hearing on behalf of her constituents, who she says are overwhelmingly opposed to the bill.

Franks, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said the usual protocol is for the minority party to offer one witness and the majority to offer three. While Democrats were given the opportunity to choose Norton as their witness, to do so would have sacrificed the opportunity to put forth a medical expert on the issue of fetal pain or a woman with a personal experience to share.

Democratic lawmakers were furious that Norton was not given a second slot in which to testify, as most other committees allow. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said it has been a tradition in Congress for decades to allow members of Congress to testify, especially on bills that directly affect their constituents, without using up a witness spot. "It's highly obnoxious and violates all customs in Congress," he said. "Never have I seen a colleague treated so contentiously. It is unconscionable that she is not able to testify."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also weighed in on the controversy at a press conference Thursday morning. "What are they afraid of? The facts? The impact on the District of Columbia? The persuasiveness of the congresswoman to represent her people?" she asked. "I don't even know whose idea that was."

Before the hearing, Norton did speak at a press conference, where she made it clear that she and most of D.C.'s residents oppose the abortion ban.

"It is difficult to approach today's hearing with anything short of disgust and anger, because this is the second time in the 112th Congress that this very same subcommittee has targeted our city, its women and its health care providers," she said. "There's been a debate as to whether Republicans are waging a war on women. Well, I can tell you this: It feels like a war on women in the District of Columbia. We will never accept second-class treatment of our city."

House Republicans brought three doctors and medical experts to the hearing as witnesses, all of whom claimed that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.

The Democrats chose as their witness Christy Zink, a George Washington University professor who chose to have an abortion at 21 weeks of pregnancy after doctors discovered her baby was missing half of his brain and would likely have spent most of his life having seizures. She said if the 20-week ban had been in place in D.C. at the time of her pregnancy, she would have been forced to carry the baby to term, which would have inflicted pain and hardship on her family.

"The decision I made to have an abortion at almost 22 weeks was made out of love and to spare my son's pain and suffering," she said. "I am horrified to think that the doctors who compassionately but objectively explained to us the prognosis and our options for medical treatment, and the doctor who helped us terminate the pregnancy, would be prosecuted as criminals under this law for providing basic medical care and expertise."

Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.