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You Can See a Snapshot of the Abortion Debate From This Senate Hearing

abortion debate

On Tuesday, April 9, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimonies from pro-life and pro-choice advocates regarding the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, or Bill S. 160. Sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham, the bill would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with the exceptions of if an abortion is necessary to save a mother’s life or is the result of rape or incest. In their arguments in favor of the bill, pro-life advocates primarily focused on the pain that abortion causes to unborn children, while the bill’s opponents expressed their concern that it would harm women mentally, emotionally and physically.

“Abortion doesn’t spare a child from suffering, it causes suffering,” said abortion survivor Melissa Ohden. Dr. Valerie Peterson, on the other hand, defended the freedom to get an abortion, a decision that she said for her was “devastating” and “extremely agonizing.”

Melissa Ohden, founder of the The Abortion Survivors Network

In her testimony, Ohden elaborated on the fact that she is a survivor of a failed abortion and speculated about the pain she must have felt during the procedure. Ohden’s biological mother was forced to have a saline infusion abortion while around 31 weeks pregnant, but five days after the doctors attempted the abortion, Ohden was born on accident. Her medical records say, “A saline infusion for an abortion was done, but was unsuccessful.” The nurses debated whether or not to provide medical care to Ohden until one finally took her to the NICU, saying, “I couldn’t just leave her there to die!” In her testimony, Ohden expressed her gratitude for those who loved her and cared for her in the time that followed, including her adoptive parents, who were not dissuaded by news that she would likely have multiple disabilities.  

Said Ohden, “My life has been a set of many miracles, which includes being the mother of two daughters, and now even being united with my biological mother and many members of her family and my biological father’s… There should be no question that every child should be spared from the excruciating pain of an abortion procedure like I was subjected to.”

Dr. Valerie Peterson, Director of Partnership Development for Equal Opportunity Schools

Dr. Peterson opened her testimony stating that “women may need to make what are often difficult decisions about having an abortion later in their pregnancies. I worry about their health and safety if a federal law is passed that would ban abortion after 20 weeks.”

To illustrate her concern, Dr. Peterson shared why she terminated her third pregnancy. She gave birth to her first daughter while in high school and her second daughter while in college. She raised them while graduating both high school and college and working full-time while in college. In the summer of 2015, she became pregnant with her son and said that he was “very much wanted.” As she approached the 20 week mark, Dr. Peterson received news that her son’s brain had not developed properly and that there was no treatment.

The doctor said that only 3 percent of babies with that condition make it full-term and those that do die anyway, usually during the birthing process. Wanting to avoid the emotional pain of continuing to carry a baby she knew would die anyway, Dr. Peterson sought an abortion, but had difficulty getting one because of Texas’ abortion laws. She ended up paying to fly to Florida to have her abortion done there. Dr. Peterson said, “I sincerely hope that no one close to you that you love dearly will have to walk in the shoes that I had to ‘travail’ in during this journey.” She opposes Bill S. 160 out of concern for the “health and well-being” of women who don’t have the same opportunities she did.

Dr. Donna Harrison, Executive Director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Dr. Harrison noted the graphic nature of abortion, particularly D&E (dilation and evacuation) abortions, where the baby is dismembered. “It is scientific fact that 20-week babies are very sensitive to pain,” she said. “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. These are measurable changes under pain.”

Dr. Harrison noted that many of the children (whom she referred to as the most vulnerable members of the population) who would be protected by the bill would be old enough to survive outside of the womb. This ability highlights that they are separate individuals from their mothers. She also observed that when doctors operate on unborn children, it is standard for them to administer anesthesia to a baby separately from his or her mother, another acknowledgement that the baby is an individual. Dr. Harrison argued that there is never a reason to perform an abortion after 20 weeks when a baby can survive outside the womb, noting that delivering the baby is safer for the mother than abortion is.

The Hon. Jen Jordan, State Senator for Georgia’s 6th Senate District

Sen. Jordan testified as a representative of a state where a law banning abortions after 20 weeks has already been in effect since 2012. She said that Bill S. 160 is basically the same as Georgia’s law and that such laws are unconstitutional. Among other critiques of Georgia’s law, Sen. Jordan argued that it fails to take into account the mental health of women, a failure she calls “problematic and cruel.” The result is that any woman who is, for example, suicidal and could benefit from medication will be denied that medication if it threatens the life of her unborn child. Sen. Jordan also said that Georgia’s restrictions on abortion are part of a wider problem in the state that women have of not being able to access reliable gynecological care. Sen. Jordan believes that laws like Bill S. 160 fundamentally infringe on women’s right to privacy. She said, “It is not for the government to insert itself in the most personal, private and wrenching decisions that women make every single day.”

Catherine Glenn Foster, President and CEO of Americans United for Life

Similar to Dr. Harrison, Ms. Foster pointed the committee to scientific evidence demonstrating that unborn children feel pain. She said that the bill under consideration “is based upon congressional findings that physiological and neurological developments in the preborn infant yield substantial medical evidence that an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization (22 weeks LMP), if not earlier.”

Foster offered several arguments for why the bill is constitutional, noting that no other laws banning abortion after 20 weeks because of fetal pain have been challenged before the Supreme Court. She argued that abortion advocates realize such challenges would not be sustainable.