From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

On Capitol Hill, opponents of abortion are trying to turn the recent conviction of an abortion provider to their advantage. Today, they took the first steps on a bill that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Here's NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: This is the second straight Congress Arizona Republican Trent Franks has introduced a federal bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks' gestation. But this year, he keeps mentioning something that wasn't much of a talking point last time, the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Pennsylvania doctor convicted of murdering both just-delivered infants and one of his women patients.

REPRESENTATIVE TRENT FRANKS: Kermit Gosnell is not an anomaly in this gruesome Fortune 500 enterprise of killing unborn children. Rather, Kermit Gosnell is actually the true face of abortion on demand in America.

ROVNER: In the wake of Gosnell, he's actually broadened his bill. Originally, it would only have applied in the District of Columbia, where Congress exercises special local authority. It would have added to the 10-or-so states that have passed similar laws. But now, Franks has expanded the reach of his bill to all 50 states. That decision was endorsed by Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the full House Judiciary Committee, who also cited Gosnell and his actions.

REPRESENTATIVE BOB GOODLATTE: These facts justify expanding the application of this bill nationwide.

ROVNER: Backers of both the federal and state bills chose 20 weeks as the cutoff for abortion because they say that's roughly when a developing fetus can begin to feel pain. One of the witnesses at today's hearing, Maureen Condic, a neurobiologist from the University of Utah Medical School, testified as much.

MAUREEN CONDIC: Fetuses at 20 weeks post-fertilization have an increase in stress hormones in response to painful stimuli that can be eliminated by appropriate anesthesia, just as for an adult.

ROVNER: Abortion-right backers, not surprisingly, disagreed. They presented documents from a list of women's health groups, led by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, suggesting that the science is far from clear but that most studies still say pain is unlikely before the third trimester of pregnancy.

Their broader argument against the legislation, however, is simpler. Because 20 weeks is still before viability, the bill is, pure and simple, unconstitutional under current Supreme Court precedents.

New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler read from an appeals court ruling striking down a similar law in Arizona earlier this week.

REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER: A woman has a constitutional right to choose to terminate her pregnancy before the fetus is viable. A prohibition on the exercise of that right is per se unconstitutional.

ROVNER: Opponents of the bill also worry that it lacks any exceptions for cases of fetal anomaly, some of which cannot be detected prior to 20 weeks.

Christy Zink of Washington, D.C. was faced with one of those situations in 2009. Twenty-one weeks into her second pregnancy, she got the results of a devastating MRI.

CHRISTY ZINK: What allows the brain to function as a whole was simply absent. In effect, our baby was also missing one side of his brain.

ROVNER: Zink had an abortion and later a second child. But she told the subcommittee she fears for the doctors who cared for her and for what might have been.

ZINK: If this bill had been passed before my pregnancy, I would have had to carry to term and give birth to a baby whom the doctors concurred had no chance of a life and who would have experienced near-constant pain.

ROVNER: Backers of the Franks bill say cases like Zink's are rare. And they don't worry about the Supreme Court, either. Their goal is to get the Supreme Court to change the precedent it has now.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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