Today the House of Representatives is set to vote on the D.C. Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. In the nation’s capital, abortion is currently legal for any reason through all nine months of pregnancy. This piece of legislation, sponsored by Representative Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), would ban abortion in the District of Columbia after 22 weeks — when there exists medical evidence that the unborn can feel pain. Nine states have passed similar laws.
A congressional vote on this issue is both shrewd politics and shrewd policy for the pro-life movement. This is for several reasons. First, since the debate over partial-birth abortion has largely faded from public view, many Americans remain unaware of the permissive nature of abortion policy in the United States. Raising the salience of late-term abortions informs the general public and shifts the abortion debate to terrain favorable to the pro-life movement.
Second, this particular piece of legislation enjoys broad support. A recent survey conducted by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and the Polling Company survey shows that 63 percent of Americans support these laws. Furthermore, this bill draws support from demographic groups that often do not support pro-life legislation. For instance, the NRLC/Polling company survey showed that young adults age 18 to 44 were more likely to support the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act than were older Americans. Also, women were considerably more likely than men to support the act.
Third, fetal-pain laws can provide another legal justification for protecting the unborn. Supreme Court jurisprudence has only allowed states to protect the unborn after viability. Of course, since these viability protections must also broadly exempt situations where the mother’s life is endangered physically or emotionally, they are very weak. However, if fetal-pain laws receive constitutional protection, they may give the unborn greater legal standing than do current viability protections, and thus pave a path for greater legal protections in the future.
During the 1990s, the debate over partial-birth abortion moved public opinion in a pro-life direction. In 1995, before the partial-birth abortion ban gained salience, a Gallup survey found that only 33 percent of Americans described themselves as pro-life. Just three years later, 45 percent of Americans identified as pro-life. Similarly, the percentage of Americans who thought abortions should be legal under any circumstance fell from 31 percent to 23 percent during the same time-span. Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts, both at the state and federal level, might successfully shift public opinion in this decade.