On the heels of new research that revealed more infants born at 22 weeks are able to survive than was previously thought, Republican leaders in the U.S House of Representatives have dusted off a late-term abortion bill for a vote, although chances of it becoming law seem distant.
The bill, which bans abortions after 20 weeks, was put on legislative purgatory in January over provisions that some lawmakers feared would force rape victims to report crimes. But the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” is now being reintroduced with tweaked language that would require abortion seekers to complete an informed consent form signed by a physician performing the procedure and a witness. It removes the rape reporting requirement that was part of the earlier version of this bill.
“Knowing that premature babies are being saved as early as 22 weeks into fetal development, there is no legitimate reason to oppose this bill,” Rep. Diane Black (R-Texas), a sponsor of the bill, said in a press release, referring to findings published May 7 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The new study examined the survival rates of almost 5,000 babies born between 22 and 27 weeks (babies are typically considered viable at 24 weeks). It found that a small number of the infants born at 22 weeks can survive with medical treatment, though many of them had long-term impairment. No such infants survived without treatment. Among 78 treated infants born at 22 weeks of age, 18 survived. Only seven of those children did not have severe or moderate impairments.
The medical findings immediately set off concerns that they could influence abortion policy even before the House action was announced. “I think if you shift viability even two weeks you will have a lot more people facing restrictions on ending pregnancy,” says Arthur Caplan, professor of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and a Scientific American Advisory Board member. “My own worry about it is this: I know of fetuses that survive at 22 weeks but with a lot of medical problems and disability. For me, survival isn’t the only issue – it’s about quality of life.”
To date, fourteen states have laws on 20 week abortion bans, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The laws are in effect in 10 states. West Virginia has a law that will go into effect next month after the state’s legislature overrode the Governor’s veto. In three more states--Arizona, Georgia and Idaho--the laws have been blocked from enforcement due to court action. For instance, Arizona’s bill, which would have blocked abortions at 18 weeks post-fertilization (20 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period) was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court early last year.
The current House bill is not expected to gain passage in the Senate.