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Are We Capable of Feeling Pain?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Congress voted Tuesday night to pass H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The law would ban abortion after 20 weeks except for cases of rape or incest, a life-endangering physical condition or when medically necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman, in which case “the abortion must be performed by the method most likely to allow the child to be born alive unless this would cause significant risk to the mother.”

The House has passed versions of this bill, most recently in 2015, and earlier this week President Donald Trump formally endorsed this latest version.

CNN began its coverage in advance of the vote with a video explaining how abortion wasn’t always taboo in America, but “simply a part of life in the United States.” Based heavily on Leslie Reagan’s book, “When Abortion Was a Crime,” the video glides past the fact that even in the good old days abortion was illegal after “quickening,” described in the video as “a subjective term,” as if no objective criteria exists or existed on a term still used today to denote the moment a pregnant mother feels her baby move.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, quickening can occur as early as 13 weeks, in other words, at the outset of the second trimester. So, while it may be subjective in terms of an individual pregnancy, quickening can be objectively measured, and it happens much earlier than many of us may realize. Yet the CNN piece plows ahead hoping we won’t notice that abortion was legal only up to the first trimester back in the day.

You decide. Was CNN deliberately attempting to obscure the fact that abortion has historically been outlawed in the U.S. after the first trimester? Are they so blinded by ideology that they inadvertently missed checking that basic fact in their reporting? Was this sloppy or slippery or both?

Either way, CNN inadvertently argued for a return to a ban, and not at 20 weeks, but much, much earlier. Not that a majority makes for the case for the immorality of abortion, but research in 2014 showed that even most abortion rights backers favor a 20-week ban, agreeing with the vast majority who identify as neutral- to anti-abortion that children deserve governmental recognition and protection as they grow in-utero. Yet, it’s also true that most people are clueless about the full humanity of the unborn from conception forward.

My abortion when I was 23 happened when I was 12 weeks pregnant. The provider lied, a deception still being perpetrated to vulnerable women today, saying it wasn’t yet a baby—just tissue. But later my heart knew the truth of what I had lost.

By ending my pregnancy, I destroyed an innocent human life.

It took many years before I could bring myself to view the remains of a child after a 12-week surgical abortion. Some are pulverized completely, indeed resembling a mound of flesh. But others are taken apart piece by piece.

I pray my little one didn’t suffer physically, as that masked man robbed him of his life. And why does this matter in light of the H.R. 36 vote to protect children from abortion after 20 weeks?

Abortion rights proponents warn that the bill is just an incremental effort to end abortion altogether. They fear treating any unborn children as full human persons, because if full human persons, then all children should share equal human rights before their births.

In the 1973 Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled abortion legal through all nine months of pregnancy so long as a physician attests to a threat to the health of the mother. Her health includes mental health, so the threat of depression, for example, is a legitimate and legal basis for killing a healthy child up to the ninth month. State laws may restrict late-term abortions, but federal law allows it. There are currently seven states where women are aborting children up to the ninth month in the U.S.

H.R. 36 seeks to dial that back, based in the science of fetology and research establishing that at 20 weeks the young child in the womb can experience pain. The New York Times reported that such research is supported by practice—as these young ones are routinely given anesthesia for intrauterine surgery. The science is not settled in the minds of some who argue that we don’t and cannot know if a fetus can feel pain. If that’s so, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution? Instead, our current laws allow for the annual killing by dismemberment of an estimated 10,000 babies just days from being able to survive outside the womb.  

Children as young as 21 weeks have survived outside their mother’s wombs. There are others, born at 24 to 25 weeks, now growing up normally without lasting adverse impact from their early births. James Elgin Gill, a Canadian boy, is thriving as a young adult after being born at 21 weeks, 5 days. In the case of Micah Pickering, now a healthy 6-year-old, born at 22½ weeks, his care team treated him as having a greater capacity for pain than older newborns.

Seventeen states have banned it, but federal law allowing abortion after 20 weeks puts the U.S. in the company of the governments of only a handful of other nations in the world, including China and North Korea. That alone should make us wonder if we as the responsible adults are capable of pain—the ethical and moral sting of allowing the killing of our youngest members of the human family to continue.

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