In a roll call Tuesday (June 18), the House voted 228-196 for the Pain-capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 1797), which would ban abortions nationwide on babies 20 weeks or more after fertilization. The ban is set at the developmental stage based on scientific evidence that a child in the womb experiences pain.
The House's support of the bill, however, is unlikely to translate into approval by the Senate or endorsement by President Obama. The measure will face stronger opposition from senators, and Majority Leader Harry Reid may not bring it to the floor for a vote. The White House has threatened a veto if the bill were to reach Obama's desk.
Nonetheless, pro-life advocates applauded the House's passage of what some see as the most important legislative protection for unborn children in years.
"Unborn children aren't issues to be debated. Issues can't feel pain and issues can't die. Unborn children are persons, our neighbors," said Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"A compassionate society would demand mercy and justice for those in the dawn of life," Moore said. "The House was right to recognize such compassionate justice, and I pray our senators and our president will as well by passing and signing this legislation."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., said the vote "marks the first time in history, in either chamber of the U.S. Congress, that affirmative protection has been extended to unborn children. It is my prayer that today also marks a day when America finally opens her eyes to the humanity of these little victims and the inhumanity of what is being done to them."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), called it "the most significant piece of pro-life legislation to come before the House since the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2007."
The White House, however, issued a policy statement expressing its strong opposition to the bill. Senior advisors would urge Obama to veto the bill if the Senate passes it, according to the statement.
"This bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and shows contempt for women's health and rights, the role doctors play in their patients' health care decisions, and the Constitution," the Obama administration said.
The Supreme Court's 1973 opinion in Roe, coupled with a companion ruling in Doe v. Bolton, had the effect of legalizing abortion throughout the country for any reason at any point in pregnancy.
Franks' bill would alter the dynamic regarding abortion, calling on the courts to consider whether the pain experienced by an unborn child should receive some weight in deciding on a woman's right to an abortion.
Supporters of the legislation frequently cited the trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell in advocating for the bill. In mid-May, a jury convicted Gosnell of the first-degree murder of three born-alive babies, as well as 21 counts of violating a state ban on abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Gosnell, 72, received three consecutive life sentences without parole for the murder convictions.
Four days after Gosnell's conviction, Franks announced he would expand the effect of his bill to the entire United States. Prior to that action, Franks' legislation affected only the District of Columbia, which the U.S. Constitution has granted Congress authority over. Last year, Franks sponsored a similar ban in D.C. but it failed to gain congressional approval. The House voted 220-154 for his measure but it required a two-thirds majority under the rule by which it came to the floor.
Among Southern Baptist members of the House, 32 voted for the bill, while two voted against it and one was unable to vote. A Southern Baptist, Franks is a member of North Phoenix Baptist Church.
The bill provides exceptions for endangerment to the mother's life, rape and incest.
A public opinion survey in March by The Polling Company showed 64 percent of American voters would support a law that fits Franks' proposal with only a threat to the mother's life as an exception.
Nine states have enacted bans similar to Franks' bill, according to NRLC.
In the Gosnell case, the three children whom he was convicted of murdering were only some of hundreds at least six months into gestation who were killed outside the womb after induced delivery at a clinic criticized for its unsanitary and unsafe conditions, according to a 281-page report issued by a grand jury in 2011. Gosnell, who destroyed the records in most of those deaths, or a co-worker typically killed the living children by a technique he called "snipping" -- jabbing scissors into the back of a baby's neck and cutting the spinal cord.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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