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D.C. Officials, Abortion Rights Backers Denounce Fetal Pain Measures

Local officials and national abortion rights groups are on the offensive against House and Senate companion bills that would target access to abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, D.C.

They gathered this morning at a press conference in the Rayburn House Office Building to put their opposition on the record.

The scope of the legislation, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), is the “first of a kind, but we’re here to assure it’s the last of its kind.”

Sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), both bills would bar in D.C. abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy — the point at which some medical experts say fetuses can begin to feel pain — and would make it illegal for doctors to perform such procedures.

Both measures would provide exceptions for a mother whose life is in danger, but not in cases where it’s clear a child would be born with serious health issues.

“I like to see children of all ages everywhere protected, but in this case, this offers us an opportunity to come together to at least to protect the children in the District, for whom we have absolute constitutional, exclusive right to legislate,” Franks recently told Roll Call.

Neither chamber has scheduled a hearing or markup on the legislation. A Democratic Senate makes prospects for passage murky at best, and President Barack Obama would almost certainly veto such a bill should one arrive on his desk.

But with bans on abortions after 20 weeks already enacted in Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma and Alabama, and the National Right to Life Committee claiming as its top legislative priority for 2012 the addition of D.C. to the roster, opponents are staying vigilant.

Local officials and activists for D.C. autonomy say the bill infringes on home rule and is an affront to its residents.

“If people want to be involved in making the laws of the District of Columbia, resign from the Congress of the United States, establish residency in the District of Columbia and run for the council of the District of Columbia,” said Mayor Vincent Gray at today’s press conference. He added that he was “absolutely sick and tired of making these pilgrimages up to Capitol Hill to underscore the obvious.”

The Constitution gives Congress exclusive legislative authority over the District of Columbia “in all cases whatsoever,” though the Home Rule Act of 1973 allows D.C. to elect a mayor and city council to write many of its laws.

Norton said the proposal is “far more than the usual Congressional abuse that you hear us talk about all the time.”

“It reaches well beyond the invasion of a jurisdiction to violate the individual rights of our citizens solely on their residency in the District of Columbia,” she continued. “This bill is quite dangerous even to introduce.”

Illuminating the extent to which the fight against the legislation could be waged beyond the District’s borders, representatives from the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Federation of America also attended the news conference.

On hand to bridge both sides of the two-pronged push against the legislation was D.C. resident Christy Zink. In 2009 Zink and her husband had to make what she called “the most difficult decision of our lives,” to have an abortion at almost 22 weeks after an MRI detected a severe abnormality in the fetus she carried that, in effect, resulted in the absence of one side of the brain.

Zink said the condition could not have been discovered any earlier in her pregnancy.

“I am here today to speak out against the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Its very premise — that it prevents pain — is a lie,” Zink said. “If this bill had been passed before my pregnancy, I would have had to carry to term and give birth to a baby who the doctors concurred had no chance of a life and would have experienced near-constant pain.”

Though activists who support abortion rights would argue that everyone should be able to receive the procedure in their home cities and states, under the circumstances Zink describes she could have obtained an abortion by going to Maryland or another jurisdiction where the procedure is legal.

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