The House Judiciary Committee passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks Wednesday afternoon in a party line vote and over the vocal objections of committee Democrats.
The "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" outlaws abortion 20 weeks after conception with an exception for the life of the mother. It will now move to the full House of Representatives for consideration.
Democrats offered several amendments creating exemptions to the ban, but all were defeated on a party line vote. They objected that there was no exemption to the ban that would allow an abortion in the case of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the health of the mother, including the mother’s mental health.
The Democrats on the committee never addressed the argument that babies can feel pain after developing for 20 weeks while debating the bill. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) came the closest, saying, "I am not going to sit here and debate the question of fetal pain," before saying the scientific community has not conclusively decided the question.
"I cannot completely fathom why we have to pretend to be doctors in this judiciary committee or people in the medical community," said committee ranking member John Conyers (D., Mich.). "This clearly is an attack on women’s constitutional right to choose and is one of the most far reaching bans on abortion this committee has ever considered."
Republicans highlighted the brutality of late-term abortions as they defended the bill and argued against the Democrats’ amendments.
"This bill is about preventing the dismembering of children," said Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), the bill’s sponsor, in reference to the procedure often used to abort babies after 20 weeks.
Franks noted that while Kermit Gosnell was convicted of murder for killing children right after they had been delivered, had he killed them right before they had been delivered, his action would have been perfectly legal.
"Delivered or not, babies are babies, and they can feel pain at least by 20 weeks. It is time to welcome young children who can feel pain into the human family. And this bill, at last, will do just that," said committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) in his opening statement.
Goodlatte highlighted a New York Times article about an Oxford-trained pediatrician who researched whether unborn babies can feel pain, and came to the conclusion that they can.
The bill may run afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which said that women have a legal right to abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, roughly when the baby is viable outside of the womb.
Nadler said the bill is unconstitutional and should therefore not be passed, as Congress should only pass laws that "comport" with the Constitution as the Supreme Court has defined it.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), a former prosecutor, said Nadler’s argument is "legal balderdash."
"Nothing would ever be overturned if that were true," he said. President Barack Obama himself criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision with many justices sitting right in front of him, Gowdy said.
Both Conyers and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) contended that the bill would force women to carry a child to term despite the fact that it does not outlaw abortion in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Nadler offered an amendment that created "a full exemption for the woman’s life and health." Franks argued that this exemption would gut the bill, as exemptions for mental health in the past have been used to allow abortion on demand.
Democrats also objected to the lack of a provision to allow an abortion if the mother might commit suicide.
The bill initially only applied to the District of Columbia. However, in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell case Franks expanded the bill to cover the entire United States.
"The case of Kermit Gosnell shocked the sensibilities of millions of Americans," Franks said in an announcement of the expansion. "However, the crushing fact is that abortions on babies just like the ones killed by Kermit Gosnell have been happening hundreds of times per day, every single day, for the past 40 years."
Planned Parenthood condemned the bill’s passage through the committee.
"We join other medical experts in opposing this dangerous legislation," said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. "It is extreme, it is unconstitutional, and it would take deeply personal and often complex decisions about pregnancy out of the hands of a woman and her doctor. In fact, it could criminalize doctors for performing a lifesaving abortion."
The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) hailed the bill’s progress.
"Because of publicity surrounding the trial of Kermit Gosnell and subsequent revelations about other abortionists, many Americans are becoming aware for the first time that abortions are frequently performed late in pregnancy on babies who are capable of being born alive and on babies who will experience great pain while being killed," said NRLC legislative director Douglas Johnson in a statement distributed at the hearing.
The full House is set to consider the bill next week, NRLC said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) has introduced companion legislation in the Senate, although his legislation only applies to the District of Columbia.