When Trent Franks was about 20 years old, a movie changed his life.
“It showed a child in the throes of dying from a saline abortion,” the Arizona Republican congressman recalls in an interview. “The child’s skin had been burned off. And it was so poignant and so powerful to me that it made an indelible imprint on my heart forever.”
Franks had been pro-life before seeing the movie, but watching it made him resolve to commit more deeply to the work of preventing abortions.
Franks is the sponsor behind the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which passed the House yesterday and would ban abortions beginning at the sixth month of gestation. Its passage, Franks observes, marks “the first time in either chamber in the United States Congress that we’ve given affirmative protection to unborn children in the history of the United States.”
In House Judiciary Committee hearings for the legislation last week, Franks ignited a media firestorm when he said, “The incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.” (Sample headline from the Atlantic Wire: “Trent Franks Is the New Todd Akin.”) Looking back, Franks regrets his “inartful” phrasing.
“My intent was to express that pregnancies from rape rarely end up in an abortion after the sixth month,” Franks explains. “And my bill doesn’t affect anything prior to that.”
What did he think of Akin’s comment last year that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”? Franks declines to criticize his former colleague. “I think we always need to look at the person’s heart and what their intent was,” he says, “and I guess I hope that I would do that for Todd Akin or whoever it was in the hope that I would be afforded the same courtesy.”
Franks understands that the legislation will almost certainly not become law this session. But he holds out hope that it will make it to the Senate floor. “If Harry Reid somehow had an open moment and he just looked at the situation for what it was . . . and you know, stranger things have happened,” he muses.
“Once in a while, a person finds his humanity in a way that astounds his contemporaries,” Franks adds. “And if it did happen, I think a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate today would be very close. This might actually pass.”
Franks doesn’t even flirt with imagining that President Obama would sign it, though. “Mr. Obama would probably veto the bill, just like Mr. Clinton vetoed the partial-birth-abortion bill,” he says. But Franks is taking the long view: “Of course when the presidency changed, that was one of the first things signed.”
He realizes that compromise on the issue, though possible, won’t be easy. “Maybe people won’t come to where I am, but I’m convinced that we can come together in an amazing way on this,” Franks says. “And it is a rough road. Certainly was in the days of slavery. We ended up shooting each other to ribbons.”
Franks sees the revelations about Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who murdered children after they had been born and who caused the death of at least one woman, as crucial to his case for banning late-term abortions. If the public were to remain unmoved by Gosnell’s crimes, he fears it would mean that “mankind has shown a real tragic ability to harden itself to almost anything.”
But he’s hopeful that the Gosnell case has led people to reconsider what makes a person a person. He points out that what Gosnell did would be legal in some states if the child had still been in the womb, regardless of the child’s advanced developmental stage. “Since when does moving a few inches or changing your residence change your status as a human being?” Franks asks.
He is also concerned about the health of women seeking late-term abortions. “It protects both babies and mothers from monsters like Kermit Gosnell,” he says of his legislation.
Frank’s pro-life advocacy began long before Gosnell’s actions were revealed. “Trent Franks is an extraordinarily effective, courageous, and compassionate defender of the weakest and most vulnerable,” says Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.), another stalwart pro-life politician. “His landmark legislation to protect baby girls from sex-selection abortion and his authorship of a bill to safeguard pain-capable unborn babies from abortion will ultimately save many precious lives. No one [in the House] has done more for the unborn and their mothers than Trent. No one.”
Franks’s personal experience has affected his view of abortion, though he is reluctant to speak about it. He was born with congenital defects, including a cleft palate. “I think what happens then is you become more grateful for life, or at least you’re able to see it, the reality of it,” he says of his childhood, before quickly adding, “I don’t want this to be the focus.”
When he finally agrees to tell the story, he tells it from his father’s perspective. “He said that when his child was born,” Franks recounts, “that the child’s skull didn’t fuse together properly and that the flesh was open, but the real problem was that the roof of the mouth was missing, completely gone. And the doctor said, ‘Well, this child can’t be breast-fed or bottle-fed. The best thing to do is to do away with him in a merciful manner.’”
But Franks’s father insisted the family would find a way, telling the doctor, “‘No, we will take him home and do the best we can. We’ll make a machine to feed him if we have to.’ Well, he was sort of a handy guy and he said that the machine turned out to be a pill cup and an eyedropper.” Franks’s parents pulled it off: Franks “got enough milk to begin to thrive,” although he suffered from “some coughing and choking.” Eventually, Franks was sent to a children’s hospital, where he endured a series of operations over several years.
“My smile will always be broken,” he says — and the corners of his mouth, like the outer corners of his eyes, are tugged downward — “but I’ll always be grateful for the chance to get to do what I get to do.” Reflecting, he adds, “I hope I would be pro-life apart from that.”
But there is no doubt that the abortion debate hits close to home for Franks. “The top two reasons for using partial-birth abortion on a child because of a health anomaly were because of Down syndrome and cleft,” he says. “And I had a brother who had Down syndrome.” Studies suggest that as many as 90 percent of children diagnosed with Down syndrome prior to birth are aborted.
“He was 44 when he passed away,” Franks says of his brother, Bruce, who was a few years older than he. “He lived a long time, longer than they thought he would, because he had muscular dystrophy as well. He lived a very meaningful life.” The two would talk about important questions — even theological ones — and Franks is “still astonished at the insight into them that he had.” Franks reflects on other experiences he’s had with kids who had Down syndrome. Among the hundreds of one- and two-year-olds he and his wife taught at Sunday school, three had Down syndrome: “When another little baby would get hurt somehow — maybe something rolled over his foot — they would run over where the baby was crying and help him cry.”
He continues: “They put their arm around him, and cry with him. They were just so moved by the crying of another child. They were especially empathetic. I think probably when the counsels of eternity are silent, we’ll probably conclude that it was the rest of us who were a little slow, because they have tremendous hearts.”
Decades ago, Franks was involved in the founding of a crisis-pregnancy center, which is still in operation, in Tempe, Ariz. “Sometimes the mothers feel like they have no choice,” he says. “Nobody is standing with them. They feel ostracized and alone. And they don’t have, sometimes, the financial means.”
“I think it is incumbent upon a compassionate society,” Franks says, “to be there for those mothers and tell them, ‘Listen, we are here for you. You’re not alone.’” He remains involved with the center.
Franks has picketed abortion clinics over the years, but ultimately he decided it wasn’t the way for him. “It became clear to me that I could be more effective by trying to do something to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness,” he explains.
Franks has also made an effort to engage in dialogue with pro-choice advocates over the years. At one point, he belonged to a group called Common Ground, which included people on both sides of the issue.
“The rules were very simple,” he recounts. “We could take turns asking each other questions. But we could not argue, we could not debate. I will tell you, I never saw anything, from my perspective, that was more productive and fruitful.” He saw people change their minds “from the pro-choice side to the pro-life side dramatically when that happened.”
Tommy Brown, an old friend of Franks and a radio host, recalls him as someone who could talk about abortion without hurting relationships. “Early on, the thing that I most admired about Trent was that when he was talking about pro-life issues, in informal or official [settings], it didn’t matter; somehow both sides still seemed to care for him. Now that was a different age,” says Brown, of the dialogue that occurred during the Nineties.
Regardless of what the future brings, Franks is determined to do what he can to prevent abortions. He thinks about what his four-year-old twins will say when they are older and become aware of how many have died in abortion. He wants to be able to tell them he did something about it. And he contemplates how history will judge the United States for permitting abortion.
“I suppose, like a lot of other tragedies or genocides throughout history, at the time, the contemporaries were somehow not really aware of the humanity of the victims, and the inhumanity of what was being done to them — whether it was slavery, whatever it might have been,” he reflects. “What motivates me, what makes me feel good,” he says, “is that when I am lying down in the lonely moments of an old-age home, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘I think there are children out there somewhere having a better time in life and laying hold of the miracle of it all because I got to be here.’”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.
Editor’s Note: This article has been modified since its initial posting.