How often does Congress have the chance to directly prevent, with a single legislative act, the certain infliction of extreme physical pain on thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of helpless and innocent victims?
Last week, the U.S. Senate missed an opportunity to do just that when 44 Democrats and two Republicans closed down debate on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The Act would have prohibited abortion after 20 weeks (five months) gestation, a stage at which unborn children can experience excruciating physical pain.
The science is so clear on this point that hospitals now give anesthesia to children at this age when they undergo surgery in utero. But not when they are aborted by dismemberment or by piercing their bodies with a large needle to inject poison that causes heart failure.
What would possess an individual, much less 46 members of Congress, to oppose legislation prohibiting this cruelty?
Only One Percent
Senator Angus King (I-Maine) is quoted in The Washington Post saying that he voted against the Pain-Capable bill because “ninety-nine percent of abortions take place before 20 weeks, so this is a solution in search of a problem.”
Really? Let’s take a look at his numbers.
An estimated one million abortions are performed annually in the U.S. If one percent of those abortions take place after the fifth month, then there are some 10,000 abortions in which unborn children are subjected to the extreme physical pain of dismemberment or lethal injection. Preventing cruelty to 10,000 pre-identified human victims is “a solution in search of a problem”?
King and his Senate colleagues are permitting the violent and cruel treatment of unborn children—behavior that we forbid against prisoners of war, that we strive to prevent in human trafficking, and that we prohibit in treatment of animals.
“They’re about to die anyway,” some might argue. But we forbid this kind of treatment for death row inmates when they are being executed. Whatever you may think of the death penalty, at least efforts are made to protect its recipients from pain during execution. Not so for unborn children.
Another One Percent Argument
Senator Lisa Murkowski, (R-Alaska) tweeted that, though she opposes post-20-week abortion, she refused to support the Pain-Capable bill because it lacked “sufficient” exceptions for “victims of rape and incest and in cases where the life or physical health of the mother is threatened.”
Murkowski illustrates her concern this way: “For example, requiring a teenage girl who was raped by her father to report to law enforcement or a government agency prior to obtaining an abortion simply is not workable.”
Let’s take a look at her logic.
In Murkowski’s world, it is better for a teen to be subjected to a high-risk, late-term abortion and to then return to her home—where she is at high risk for further sexual abuse—than for the girl, or her doctor, to inform authorities of the crime that has been committed against her and protect her from ongoing danger.
And, in Murkowski’s thinking, ensuring that the girl can be placed in this physical double jeopardy is so important that it warrants leaving not only her unborn child and those of other rape victims unprotected from the extreme physical pain of abortion, but the 9,900 other five-month-old children, as well.
Where did that 9,900 figure come from? Some estimates of abortions obtained in cases of rape are as high as one percent. So, of the 10,000 post-five-month abortions performed in the U.S. annually, approximately 100 are performed on rape victims. In other words, Murkowski voted to permit the excruciatingly painful abortion of 10,000 late-term children because 100 of them may be children of rapists.
Senator King says one percent (10,000) is too small a number of victims to be worth protecting from the equivalent of torture. Senator Murkowski seems to think that most of them do deserve protection, but shouldn’t receive it because one percent (100) of them may have been conceived in rape. The logic itself is tortuous.
Rare, But Not Non-Existent
Opportunities to pass legislation with such immediate humanitarian impact are rare, but not as rare as you might think. Versions of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act have been passed by the House of Representatives not once, not twice, but three times (in 2013, 2015, and—the bill the Senate just nixed—in 2017). Each time, the Senate has voted in favor of continuing the cruelty.
How many times will it take before the Senate votes in line with science and basic humanitarianism?
Jay Sappington is a bioethicist, researcher, writer, educator, and policy advocate. He has worked with Heartbeat International and The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, among others.