The measure is tentatively on House GOP leaders' list of bills to be considered in a lame-duck session before Democrats assume control of Congress. It has no chance of passing the Senate during the waning days of Republican control. But, with Democrats ascending to agenda-setting roles, passage isn't the point, said one conservative leader.
"Next year, the leadership of the House will be hard-core, pro-abortion loyalists," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "They will block votes on even modest pro-life measures like this one."
The vote would be the first on the measure, which was introduced in September and referred to a health subcommittee, where no action on it was taken. Johnson said his group wants a House vote to test support for the measure.
The bill, by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., defines a 20-week-old fetus as a "pain-capable unborn child" — a highly controversial threshold among scientists. It also directs the Health and Human Service Department to develop a brochure stating "that there is substantial evidence that the process of being killed in an abortion will cause the unborn child pain."
Abortion providers would be required to inform the mothers that evidence exists that the procedure would cause pain to the child and offer the mothers anesthesia for the baby. The mothers would accept or reject the anesthesia by signing a form. The bill allows for an exception for certified medical emergencies.
When fetuses can feel pain — versus a reflexive drawing back from stimuli — has been the subject of heated debate. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco last year reviewed dozens of studies and medical reports and said that fetuses likely are incapable of feeling pain until around the seventh month of pregnancy, when they are about 28 weeks old.
That report hardly settled the issue for Johnson's group. The legislation would enshrine other evidence that fetuses "would experience great pain during abortions by 20 weeks," the Right to Life Committee said in a letter this week to House members.