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House committee approves Franks bill to limit abortions in Washington

The House Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved a bill by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, to ban abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

It came over the vehement opposition of city officials, who accused Franks of using the “District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” to make political points at the expense of district residents who oppose the bill.

“We resent to our core that we were used by Rep. Franks and by anti-abortion forces to make ideological points,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the city’s non-voting delegate to Congress.

If its supporters truly believed in the bill, they would make it apply nationally and not just in the district, Norton said. But Franks knows “that no changes would make this bill acceptable to the entire nation,” she said.

But Franks defended the bill, saying it is up to Congress to protect the rights of fetuses.

“If it’s a local prerogative to torture pain-capable children, then it’s the responsibility of Congress to respond,” he said.

Franks said the bill was needed because the city repealed most of its abortion restrictions earlier this year. But Norton said the district has done nothing more than about a dozen states have done.

The bill makes it a crime for a physician to perform or attempt to perform an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless the woman’s life was endangered by the pregnancy. Penalties for violating the law include fines and up to two years in prison.

The bill would let anyone who has been a woman’s health provider seek an injunction to block an abortion. Democrats said that could give a school nurse or a woman’s childhood pediatrician the ability to stop an abortion or stall it until it the pregnancy was well past the 20-week mark.

Democrats were particularly concerned that the bill does not make broad enough exceptions for the health of the mother or for women who were pregnant as a result of rape or incest, among other circumstances.

“The Constitution requires that any restriction on access to abortion provide an exception to protect the life or health of a woman,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

The bill does allow an abortion if “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function” is at stake. Franks dismissed criticism like Nadler’s as “diversions” from the main goal of protecting fetuses from feeling pain at 20 weeks – a concept that opponents challenge.

“This is about 20 weeks,” Franks said.

Nadler’s amendment to exempt a woman from the 20-week limit if her health, not just her life, was at risk failed on a party-line vote, as did two other Democratic amendments. The committee voted 18-14, also along party lines, to approve the bill and send it to the full House.

“I’m grateful that it passed,” Franks said. “I’m sorry that it was distorted so dramatically.”

Norton said the bill, with 215 cosponsors, has a good chance of passing the House. Its fate is much less certain in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“He’s ganging up on the district, he’s abusing congressional power,” Norton said of Franks. “Because the home rule act never envisions that you can introduce separate bills for us and nobody else.”

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Stephanie Snyder/Cronkite News Service

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, said it’s incumbent on Congress to take action and impose abortion restrictions if local officials pass policies that can 'torture pain-capable children.'