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Pre-Born Pain and Political Cowardice

RedState.com is suggesting that the 114th Congress “may be the most pro-life Congress Washington has ever seen.”  Exhibit A is the reintroduction of the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” (HR 36).  The bill, which has had many incarnations, most recently was passed by the House in the previous Congress, before dying in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The House has already scheduled a vote on the new version—January 22, the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

With new Republican majorities now in place, HR 36’s passage is as predictable as President Obama’s veto, which he promised on the last go-round.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) has pushed versions of this bill for several years, and he joins Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in sponsoring it this time.  Naturally, the left is up in arms, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s chief sorceress Cecile Richards has vowed to defeat it.  “The people of this country believe Congress should be focused on making people’s lives better,” Richards told HuffPo.  Obviously, the federal government has been improving women’s lives by protecting their right to kill their own offspring, even after those little ones have developed tiny eyelashes and taste buds.

That’s what happens in the days following Week 20 of gestation, the line in the sand drawn by the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.  The legislation insists that “It is the purpose of the Congress to assert a compelling governmental interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which substantial medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain.”  The baby’s pain, we are thus taught, makes his murder unjust.

Now, of course, the advantage of this approach is its political expediency: People who would normally oppose restrictions on “choice” might nonetheless stand up and object if the infant might actually feel it when he is stabbed to death.  Some lives saved are better than none, etc.  And even though this bill has a snowball’s chance in the Oval Office, it’s the right thing to do.  If we keep talking about the horrors of abortion, eventually, maybe, someday something might change.

“These are innocent and defenseless children who can not only feel pain, but who can survive outside of the womb in most cases, and who are torturously killed without even basic anesthesia,” Rep. Franks told LifeNews.  Hence the bill’s lengthy sections describing fetal development, including references to “substantial medical evidence,” which the New York Times has been kind enough to counter with its own string of experts and evolving opinions.  This includes Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, who testified before Congress in 2004 regarding fetal pain in partial-birth abortions.  Now, even Anand admits to the Times that babies may experience pain as soon as 22 weeks.  But he thinks that statistically this isn’t a bother, because of the relatively few abortions that occur beyond 20 weeks.  (By the way, Guttmacher has it at 1.2 percent for 21+ weeks—a paltry 12,720 per year.)   In the spirit of first do no harm, Dr. Anand helpfully suggests that,

“In the very few abortions where fetal pain could possibly occur, . . . consider what can be done to avoid inflicting a lot of pain on the fetus.” He said a common method used after 20 weeks—injecting amniotic fluid or fetuses with heart-stopping medication before removing the fetus—“would be fine, really, from a point of view of fetal pain,” a “compassionate way to do it.”

Rep. Franks is no stranger to the media spotlight, thanks to an errant comment he made in 2013 regarding this very infant-pain legislation—namely, that the “incidents of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low . . .”  The occasion for that gaffe was his being grilled for not providing an exception for babies that are the product of rape and incest.

His point, Franks subsequently explained, was rational in its original context.  What he’d meant was that instances of rape and incest are always brought up by the left to inflame passions, but such passions are unfounded with regard to the proposed 20-week ban.  Most rape victims would likely be unaffected, because their abortions often occur before the sixth month of gestation.

Here’s were we plunge into the vile subtext of this bill.  The 2015 “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” does not protect children conceived as a result of rape or incest.  In fact, following the much-reported Franks gaffe, exceptions for rape and incest were quietly added to the 2013 bill (the one that the House previously passed).

Exceptions for rape and incest are nothing new for GOP politicians.  Presidential front-runners are fond of declaring them (Bush III, Romney, McCain, Bush II, Dole, Bush I).  But politically, these exceptions appear as nothing more than futile attempts at mollifying the media, who are not oblivious to the obvious contradiction, and by making these exceptions candidates forestall any opportunity to speak clearly and morally on the topic of abortion.

Instead, it seems as though plain moral consistency on this topic cannot help but flummox otherwise pro-life politicians when confronted by the media.  “Just to be precise," CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Rand Paul in 2013, "if you believe life begins at conception, which I suspect you do, you would have no exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother.  Is that right?”  Senator Paul offered a rambling, confusing response, which included the following:

I would say that each individual case would have to be addressed and even if there were eventually a change in the law, let’s say people came more to my way of thinking, . . . there would still be a lot of complicated things the law may not ultimately be able to address in the early stages of pregnancy that would have to be part of what occurs between the physician and the woman and the family.

Rape and incest are horrible, capital crimes, and no woman should have to endure them.  But they fall on a spectrum that includes lesser but equally real hardships that pregnant women endure, which are irrelevant when it comes to the question of fetal murder.  Like preborn children with genetic diseases, rapists' children, whose violent conception shrouds their young lives in shame, are branded as being somehow worthy of death.  The rapist says that his victim’s body may be violated at will.  The exceptionist says the same of that woman’s child.

What is particularly insidious about HR 36 is that its eugenic exceptions are prefaced by dramatic assertions of preborn pain.  How can one possibly make the case that infants capable of feeling pain should be protected from the abortionist's needle, only to turn around and except one particular class of infant?  This makes the political calculation all the more contemptible: Given the virtual impossibility of the bill’s signature by President Obama, its authors have nothing to lose, yet are insisting on public support for a rationale that violates consciences and would painfully violate the most vulnerable.

If we keep talking about the horrors of abortion in these muddled, morally confused terms, nothing will change.

Aaron D. Wolf

Aaron D. Wolf

Aaron D. Wolf (1973-2019) was Chronicles' executive editor.  His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. He was a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) and The Paul Youngblood Show (nta.fm), and has appeared on several other radio programs, including The Tom Clark Show (Wisconsin Public Radio) and Extension 720 With Milt Rosenberg (WGN).

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