There are few surer ways to make family gatherings super awkward than talking abortion. Your unassumingly conservative uncle gets disproportionately heated, while your Catholic grandmother graphically makes the case for pulling out.
Nevertheless, the debate rages on at dinner tables and committee hearings, as lawmakers are finding new ways to wiggle into the American uterus.
As early as this week, South Carolina senator and presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham reportedly plans to reintroduce a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, save for rape and incest cases. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its companion bill, which counts Minnesota Republican Reps Tom Emmer and John Kline, and Blue Dog Collin Peterson among many co-sponsors.
But states aren't sitting around twiddling their umbilical cords waiting for Congress to act. According to the National Right for Life Committee, 11 states have passed similar laws nixing such late-term abortions. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Senate took up a 20-week abortion bill supported by GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who's eyeing the Oval Office.
These so-called "pain-capable" abortion prohibitions aim to spare fetuses from the alleged boo boos (or excruciating hurt) of natal death. Public opinion seems to side with the save-the-fetus crowd. A Washington Post poll found 64 percent of Americans favor restricting abortions after 20 weeks.
"There's substantial medical evidence that indicates the unborn child is capable of feeling pain," says Chelsea Shields, of Wisconsin Right to Life, which has thrown its muscle behind the Badger-state bill.
While supporters claim science is on their side, doctors call shenanigans on the 20-week distinction. Dr. Kathy Hartke, who chairs the Wisconsin Section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, issued a statement denouncing the move.
"Robust evidence has thoroughly discredited arguments used to support this proposed ban; these arguments are biased, not grounded in science," Hartke says.
In 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review finding fetuses feel no pain until well after 20 weeks of gestation. The smarties with degrees wrote that the perception of pain doesn't hit until the third trimester, around 29 or 30 weeks. Five years later, U.K. docs with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that thalamocortical fibers, which are necessary for feeling pain, begin developing around 23 weeks and aren't fully functional until closer to 30.
Pain capability aside, this particular womb crusade would only cover a sliver of the steadily declining number of abortions occurring in the U.S. each year. Of the historically low 730,322 abortions reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011, the latest year for which the CDC has released stats, 99 percent were performed at 20 weeks or sooner.
When asked why Wisconsin's proposed 20-week limit was needed, given the numbers, Shields says, "We feel we have a duty to highlight an aspect of abortion that's particularly gruesome at this point when an unborn child is capable of feeling pain. This is an opportunity to present a new and compelling state interest ... and the Senate and Assembly authors feel we have a duty to protect those children at such an important point."
Meanwhile, debate on "pain-capable" abortion bills is spilling into the courts. Last month an Idaho appellate court ruled the state's 20-week cap was "unconstitutional because it categorically bans some abortions before viability," NPR reports.
It's unclear whether the U.S. Senate will give Graham's bill a hearing. The GOP majority would need a few Democrats to hop a potential filibuster hurdle, though they won't get help from Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, who oppose the bill.
In the meantime, try not to bring it up around Grandma.
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