In yet another attempt to devastate reproductive healthcare, House Republicans recently reintroduced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 36), which would criminalize the performance of abortions later than 20 weeks in a pregnancy. The House passed this bill on October 3 (with a vote split directly along party lines), and if it passes the Senate, it will be incredibly detrimental to everyone’s access to reproductive healthcare.
This bill is not new. The Republicans in Congress have been attempting to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act since 2013, and the bill passed the House and died in the Senate three times before the most recent House vote on October 3. Following the failure of the Graham-Cassidy Health Care bill, the Republicans reintroduced H.R. 36 to advance their healthcare platform in other ways—in this case, restricting access to safe abortions.
Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ), the primary sponsor of this bill, has a long history of opposing abortion and, more notably, making extremely controversial claims on the topic. His 2002 campaign site called abortion “a great human genocide that is causing unfathomable harm to American mothers and destroying the future itself.” In 2010, he claimed that “far more of the African American community is being devastated by the [abortion] policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery.” These absurd claims provide just a glimpse of Franks’ ignorance and insensitivity on the topic, and such views have no place in the regulation of healthcare.
Franks and other proponents of this bill claim that it is the result of scientific research and altruistic desires to protect the health of women and “pain-capable” children. It’s not. Just like every other legislative attack on abortion, this bill is about restricting bodily autonomy by limiting access to safe and legal reproductive care.
The text of the bill claims that “there is substantial medical evidence that an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks of fertilization.” However, the bill does not cite any real scientific studies. In fact, actual medical professionals—like the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—agree that a fetus cannot feel pain until at least the third trimester (24 weeks or later). The 20-week claim has absolutely no scientific grounding. Legislators aren’t physicians. They cannot fabricate medical evidence to support their anti-choice agenda.
Supporters of H.R. 36 also point to the exceptions provided for pregnant women whose lives are at risk and/or who are victims of rape or incest, allowing them to potentially still access legal abortions after 20 weeks. However, these exceptions are completely inadequate, placing an excessive burden on victims and only making it more difficult for women to access the healthcare they need.
The bill’s exception to protect pregnant women’s health, for example, only applies to terminal physical conditions—even if a woman’s health is severely endangered, she does not qualify for this exception unless her condition is imminently life-threatening. It also specifically excludes protections for mental health.
The exceptions for victims of rape and incest are also incredibly problematic. Under H.R. 36, minors who are victims of rape or incest would be required to report the incident to a government or law enforcement agency in order to receive an abortion after 20 weeks. Adults who are victims of rape may only receive an abortion after 20 weeks if they “obtained counseling for the rape” or “obtained medical treatment for the rape or an injury related to the rape” at least 48 hours prior to the abortion. There is no exception made for adult victims of incest. These “exceptions” are unacceptable.
Survivors of sexual assault should NEVER be forced to “obtain counseling” or other treatment as a prerequisite for any sort of medical care. Furthermore, this exception depicts a “perfect victim” as someone who receives such treatment, excluding and delegitimizing the experiences of everyone outside this profile. Not all victims of sexual assault have visible physical injuries and almost two thirds will never report the incident to law enforcement, but all experiences are equally valid. The exceptions for rape and incest in H.R. 36 focus on discrediting certain victims’ experiences rather than universally condemning all sexual assault. This bill does not protect victims—it just creates additional obstacles to impede their access to safe and legal abortion.
Only 1.3% of all abortions in the United States occur after 21 weeks, but it is essential that this option remains available to everyone. Women under age 19 and black women are disproportionately likely to have an abortion in the second trimester—thus, H.R. 36 would disproportionately target these groups.
One in three American women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and it is absolutely essential to ensure that everyone has access to safe and legal reproductive care. Any attempt to restrict access to abortion is a threat to everyone’s bodily autonomy. Abortions after 20 weeks are already prohibited in 17 states, and if H.R. 36 makes this policy national, it will be a devastating setback in the fight to protect access to reproductive care.
As we wait for the Senate to vote on H.R. 36, help make sure everyone understands how detrimental this bill is. Call your Senators and explain why it is so important that we prevent this bill from passing. For the sake of everyone’s basic autonomy, reproductive rights, and access to safe, legal medical care, let’s make sure the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act never becomes law.