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House passes bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks

Antiabortion advocates rally outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life on Jan. 27, 2017. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
Antiabortion advocates rally outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life on Jan. 27, 2017. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The House on Tuesday passed a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, a top priority of the antiabortion movement, but the measure is widely expected to die in the Senate.

What Republicans call the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would prohibit anyone from performing an abortion if the fetus is 20 weeks or more past fertilization, based on controversial claims that it can feel pain at that age. The validity of this claim has been disputed by medical authorities and abortion providers.

The bill passed by a vote of 237 to 189, with all but two Republicans supporting the bill and just three Democrats voting for it.

Among the bill's Republican supporters was Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. On Tuesday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he had urged a mistress to have an abortion when she told him that she thought she was pregnant; she was not, it turned out. 

The measure will now go to the Senate, where it would need at least eight Democrats' votes to pass -- an unlikely scenario. The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), has introduced similar legislation several times; one such bill passed the House in 2015 but failed in the Senate.

This time, however, the bill has presidential support. President Trump's Office of Management and Budget said in a statement on Monday that the administration supports the House for “continuing its efforts to secure critical pro-life protections,” and that advisors would encourage the president to sign the bill into law.

“In spite of all of the political noise, protecting these little, helpless, pain-capable unborn children and their mothers is not a Republican issue and it is not a Democrat issue,” Franks said at a hearing before the House vote. “It is a basic test of our basic humanity and who we are as a human family.”

Critics of the bill say that it could pose serious risks to women’s rights and health. Amy Friedrich-Karnik, senior federal policy advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights, called the bill a “direct attack on women’s autonomy.”

“Every woman faces her own unique circumstances in a pregnancy, her own unique challenges and potential complications,” she said. The bill, she added, "inserts politicians into those decisions and into the doctor’s room.”

Although only a few abortions occur after a fetus has reached 20 weeks, abortion rights advocates say those cases usually arise from a woman's health risks, financial concerns or a lack of resources for the pregnancy. 

The bill would prevent abortions 20 weeks after fertilization unless the pregnancy has put the woman’s life in danger or it was a result of rape or incest. In a pregnancy resulting from a rape, a woman would be allowed to have an abortion if she has received counseling or medical treatment and has waited 48 hours.

Under the bill, women who receive an abortion would not be sanctioned, but the person who performed the procedure would be subject to a fine and up to five years in prison.

Currently, abortions are legal nationwide until a fetus is viable outside the womb, but states can enact laws to limit the procedure.

The combination of support from some conservative states and the Trump administration, along with some relaxation in the Democratic Party of the criticism of the party's few antiabortion lawmakers, could give the bill momentum in the Senate, said Mallory Quigley, communications director for the antiabortion organization Susan B. Anthony List.

Quigley and other supports of the act often refer to it as “Micah’s law,” for a young boy said to have been born 20 weeks after fertilization who is now starting kindergarten. This bill could "bring about a life-affirming culture because we protect these lives under the law," Quigley said.

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