President Donald Trump’s White House is backing a bill that would criminalise abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The bill, which passed a Senate vote on Tuesday (3 October), is known as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, or H.R 36, and is based on the theory that “the physical structures necessary to experience pain are developed within 20 weeks of fertilization”.
However, as jezebel.com points out, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) holds a different position on the point at which a foetus can be said to feel pain, based on scientific studies.
It has stated that “scientific facts” gleaned from “rigorous” research include that a foetus “does not even have the physiological capacity to perceive pain until at least 24 weeks of gestation” and says that inauterine fetal movement “is not an indication that a foetus can feel pain”.
In a statement of policy released by the Office of Management and Budget ahead of the vote, Trump’s administration unequivocally supported the bill.
“The administration strongly supports H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and applauds the House of Representatives for continuing its efforts to secure critical pro-life protections.”
It adds: “America’s children deserve the stronger protections that H.R. 36 would advance.”
The Republican-majority house passed the bill with a vote of 237 for and 189 against, but as thehill.com reports, it now needs to pass the Senate and may again face opposition from Democrats (the bill passed the House in 2015, but was blocked in the Senate). Sixty votes are needed for it to pass the Senate, and Republicans hold only 52 seats.
It’s currently unclear when the bill would come before the Senate, with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn quoted by CNN as saying it was “not a near-term priority”.
The 20-week point is controversial, as some fetal health issues can only be detected around that point, when women usually have a routine scan, or sometimes later. Currently, Planned Parenthood states almost 99% of all abortions in the US occur before 21 weeks, and later abortions are often only required for complex cases, such as severe abnormalities meaning the baby would likely die shortly after birth.
As Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, wrote for thehill.com, the ban could also disproportionally impact “low-income women and women of colour” as they bear a “disproportionate burden of unintended pregnancies” and are more likely to have financial problems delaying their procedures, having had to raise funds for the clinic and travel costs.
She also points out that increased restrictions on abortion access across the country, which variously include waiting periods, counselling, multiple doctor sign-offs and the consent of ‘family members’, “may in fact push many women into having abortions later than they would have otherwise wanted.”
The new bill would allow abortion past 20 weeks only in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.
Trump made clear his support for the bill before he won the 2016 election, promising anti-choice “leaders” that he would back it.
Image: Rex Features