General Articles

Washington, DC, Once Again Becomes a Pawn in the Abortion Debate

Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) and the anti-choice National Right to Life Committee (NLRC) have placed District of Columbia residents squarely in the middle of the abortion debate in the run-up to the 2012 elections. On January 23, 2012, Representative Franks introduced the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 3803), which would ban all abortions in the District after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except when the abortion is&mmdash;

necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury…not including psychological or emotional conditions or any claim or diagnosis that the woman will engage in conduct which she intends to result in her death.[1]

The legislation would make no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities. The bill contains elements of model legislation drafted by the NLRC, versions of which have been adopted in seven states—Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.[2] A companion measure, S. 2103, was introduced in February by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).

NLRC makes no secret of its political motivation, labeling the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act its top legislative priority for 2012, asserting that if “at the end of this congressional session, abortion remains unrestricted…in the nation’s capital, it will only be because certain members of Congress—or the president—have obstructed this bill”[3] The measure also is intended to target President Barack Obama, as NLRC president Carol Tobias declared that it “should not be a surprise to anyone that the top priority for National Right to Life’s political action committee this year is defeating Barack Obama and electing a pro-life president.”[4]

Abortion-rights advocates have countered that this legislation represents an unprecedented level of intrusion into the reproductive rights of women living in Washington, DC. While abortion rights in the District have long been a political football for conservatives—most recently when President Barack Obama was compelled to accept a policy rider banning the District from using its own local funds to assist low-income women with the cost of an abortion to avoid a government shutdown during the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations battle—Congressman Franks’s legislation, if passed, would be the first bill to restrict abortion in Washington, DC, by other than financial means.[5]

Congressman Franks held a hearing on the legislation on May 22, 2012, in the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Committee on the Judiciary, of which he is the chair. Democrats, as the minority party in the House, were only permitted to call one witness at the hearing. Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) chose a George Washington University professor who had an abortion at 21 weeks of pregnancy after the discovery of severe brain abnormalities in the fetus she was carrying.

In addition, the District’s non-voting member of the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, requested to be allowed to testify as the measure would affect her constituents. Such requests generally are granted as a professional courtesy, but Congressman Franks barred Congresswoman Norton from testifying at the hearing. Congressman Nadler called Congressman Franks’ action “highly obnoxious” and asserted that it “violates all customs in Congress.”[6] He went on to say: “Never have I seen a colleague treated so contentiously. It is unconscionable that she is not able to testify.”[7] House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also condemned Congressman Franks’ decision, saying: “What are they afraid of? The facts? The impact on the District of Columbia? The persuasiveness of the congresswoman to represent her people….We have a member of Congress who wants to come in to talk about her district…I can’t even imagine a situation where someone else would be denied that opportunity, and I think it’s wrong.”[8] Congresswoman Norton responded with her characteristic fire, declaring that—

It is difficult to approach today’s hearing with anything short of disgust and anger, because this is the second time in the 112th Congress that this very same subcommittee has targeted our city, its women and its health care providers … There’s been a debate as to whether Republicans are waging a war on women. Well, I can tell you this: It feels like a war on women in the District of Columbia. We will never accept second-class treatment of our city.[9]

District leaders and press outlets reacted to the measure with sarcasm and derision. Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray “invite[d] [Congressman Franks] to become a candidate for DC Council” if he was so concerned about District residents.[10] DC Vote, an organization dedicated to securing voting rights in Congress for the District, organized a “Constituent Service Day” during which District residents visited Congressman Franks’ office to present him with day-to-day issues such as potholes, rat infestations, broken streetlights, and unfair parking tickets.

The Washington Post Editorial Board issued a blistering opinion piece, condemning the House of Representatives for “trampling” on the District’s rights and supporting DC Vote’s action, asserting that if “Mr. Franks is so interested in running the affairs of District residents, as evidenced by his effort to restrict their abortion rights, then let him deal with all the other issues of local government.”[11] The Editorial Board also called it “[n]o surprise that Mr. Franks locked his doors to last week’s protest by D.C. Vote and turned off his phones,” turning a deaf ear to the District residents’ request that he address everyday concerns rather than attempting to limit their reproductive rights.[12]

Click here to view all May 2012 Policy Updates

1 H.R. 3803, District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, 112th Cong., § 3(a) (2012), accessed 30 May 2012,
2 “Abortion Bans After 12 Weeks,” NARAL Pro-Choice America, accessed 6 June 2012,; Editorial Board, “The Campaign Against Women,” New York Times, 19 May 2012, accessed 6 June 2012,
3 Julian Pecquet, “Abortion foes muscle into 2012 debate,” The Hill, 24 January 2012, accessed 30 May 2012,
4 Ibid.
5 Editorial Board, “With abortion measure, Republican ‘mini-mayors’ are at it again,” Washington Post, 2 February 2012, accessed 30 May 2012,
6 Laura Basset, “Abortion Ban Proposed For D.C. Sparks Fierce Debate In Congress,” Huffington Post, 17 May 2012, accessed 30 May 2012,
7 Ibid.; Ben Pershing, “D.C. delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton silenced at hearing on abortion limits,” Washington Post, 17 May 2012, accessed 30 May 2012,
8 “Abortion Ban Proposed For D.C. Sparks Fierce Debate In Congress,” ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 “D.C. delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton silenced at hearing on abortion limits,” ibid.
11 “The House tramples again on the District’s rights,” Washington Post, 28 May 2012, accessed 30 May 2012,
12 Ibid.