Statehouses across the United States have served as venues for the abortion debate to play out in the past few months, but the action April 9 was on Capitol Hill with a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
And this time, ideological adversaries sparred over what criteria make a fetus capable of experiencing pain.
Committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who presented the legislation over a year ago, opened the session by stressing that his bill is humane and backed by scientific evidence.
"It would provide common sense protections for unborn children at 20 weeks after fertilization," Graham said, "a point at which there is significant scientific evidence that abortion inflicts tremendous pain on the unborn child."
He continued: "(It is) standard medical practice to provide anesthesia to a child at the 20-week period because we know they feel pain. ... That says a lot, I think, about the development of the unborn child."
Graham’s bill, while banning abortions past 20 weeks and instituting high standards of care for children who do survive abortions that it permits, still contains exceptions if a procedure is necessary to save the life of the mother, or if a woman is pregnant due to rape or incest.
Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-California, rebutted Graham once he had finished, presenting her own evidence that fetuses at 20 weeks gestation would not feel pain.
And her testimony bore a stamp of approval from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "This is the premier professional organization," she said.
Feinstein quoted from a statement given by that group: "A human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after viability. Rigorous scientific studies have shown that the connections necessary to transmit signals ... as well as the brain structures ... to process those signals do not develop until at least 24 weeks of gestation."
At this point, a layman would rightly be confused. Why would doctors administer anesthesia to a fetus that studies show can't detect pain during an abortion?
After expert witnesses had gotten the chance to testify, however, new facts began to come to light.
Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, spoke in favor of the bill and provided insight into why both sides seemed to be talking past each other's facts.
She stated: "It is scientific fact that 20-week babies are very sensitive to pain. They react the same way that you do. They withdraw from painful stimuli, they release stress hormones, their heart rate increases, and their breathing increases."
So while not contesting Feinstein's assertion that fetuses at 20 weeks still have some incomplete neurological structures, Harrison did reveal that their physical reactions to painful stimuli are almost indistinguishable from that of an already-born human being.
This might explain why fetuses at this stage are anesthetized prior to an abortion.
Graham may have been aware of this too, as his bill notes in the "legislative findings" section that "recent medical research and analysis, especially since 2007, provides strong evidence for the conclusion that a functioning cortex is not necessary to experience pain."
In other testimony against the bill, Georgia State Sen. Jen Johnson described a heinous toll she said Georgia's pain-capable abortion ban has allegedly taken on women since its passage in 2012.
In addition to mentioning declining numbers of hospitals in rural areas of the state, Johnson remarked: "Since the passage of Georgia's 20-week ban, we have seen the maternal mortality rate double, if not triple, in the state of Georgia."
While it is true that Georgia ranks near the bottom among U.S. states with regard to maternal mortality rates, several states with bans similar to Georgia's don't appear to have had the same plight: According to data gathered by USA Today, North Carolina has only 18.6 maternal deaths per 100,000 births to Georgia's 48.4, even with a 20-week ban that has been in place longer than Georgia's.
As the hearing got underway, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' pro-life committee issued a statement calling on Congress to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and stop "the barbaric practice of late-term abortion."
"This bill draws the public's attention to the shameful reality that the United States is one of only seven nations worldwide that allows the barbaric practice of late-term abortion, when a child likely feels pain and might even live outside the womb with appropriate medical assistance," said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who is chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.