A House subcommittee heard diverging opinions on a bill that would ban abortions in the nation’s capital once a fetus is 20 weeks past fertilization, a Republican-backed effort that city officials decried as a “cheap and cynical” way to promote an agenda on the backs of women in the District without any input from the city’s sole voice in Congress.
Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, has obtained 193 co-sponsors for the bill, the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, since he introduced it in January.
Mr. Franks, chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, opened a hearing on Thursday by saying the practice of aborting fetuses that can feel pain “is, in my opinion, the greatest human rights atrocity in the United States today.”
But Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said decisions about abortion in the District should be left to lawmakers elected by city voters under home-rule provisions the city has enjoyed for about 40 years.
D.C. officials bristle at any intrusion from Capitol Hill on the city’s ability to govern itself and think Mr. Franks is singling out the District simply because he can, relying on Congress’ constitutional right to oversight of the quasi-federal city.
Mrs. Norton accused the subcommittee of shutting her out of discussions on the bill after they denied her the opportunity to testify at the hearing on behalf of her constituents.
“Candidly, it is difficult to approach today’s hearing with anything short of disgust and anger,” Mrs. Norton said at a press conference before the hearing.
Under Mr. Franks’ bill, the prohibition would not apply in cases where an abortion is necessary to protect the life of the pregnant woman or prevent an “irreversible physical impairment” to her. However, it would still apply in cases of rape, incest or if the fetus has a medical condition.
Mr. Franks has pitched the bill as part of a state-by-state effort to ban late-term abortions, arguing the nation’s capital could become a safe haven for such procedures if nothing is done.
Mrs. Norton objected to the merits of the bill and the potential message it sends to women across the country. Fellow opponents of the legislation contested the research presented by Mr. Franks’ witnesses — including an obstetrician who used to perform abortions — who concluded fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks.
“It feels like a war on women in the District of Columbia,” Mrs. Norton said.
On Thursday, her office released the written testimony she would have delivered, if given the chance.
“Republicans do not dare take on the women of this country who have voting members of the House and Senate with a post-20-week ban on abortions,” she said in the prepared remarks.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and House minority leader, also expressed dismay over the subcommittee’s decision to deny Mrs. Norton’s request.
“What are they afraid of?” Ms. Pelosi said on C-SPAN. “The facts? The impact on the District of Columbia? I think it’s wrong.”
Mr. Franks said Democrats could have picked any witness they wanted, but opted for Christy Zink, a D.C. resident who had an abortion at 21 weeks post-fertilization after doctors found “severe brain abnormalities” in the fetus.
Mrs. Zink, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 11-month-old son, said she and her husband had to make “the most difficult decision of our lives” after consulting with doctors. Her unborn child, she said, would have had “no chance of life and near-constant pain.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and ranking subcommittee member, said he found Mrs. Zink to address fundamental policy issues, but had hoped House Republicans would extend Mrs. Norton the courtesy of allowing her to testify as an elected representative of the District.
“It’s a sham proceeding,” Mr. Nadler said. “It’s obnoxious conduct.”
The National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, said it has made Mr. Franks’ bill its top priority for 2012 and will score House members on how they vote.
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
Mr. Franks punctuated the hearing with fervent comments on the sanctity of unborn children’s lives, arguing that his colleagues should not “blind ourselves from a truth we don’t want to face.”
D.C. Vote, an organization that advocates for home rule in the District, has been active in fighting Mr. Franks’ bill. It organized a protest in March outside Mr. Franks’ offices on Capitol Hill and in Glendale, Ariz., that played off the congressman’s surname with the tagline, “Don’t be a wiener.”
On Wednesday, it will host a mock “D.C. Constituent Service Day” at Mr. Frank’s House office, in which city residents can bring their problems and concerns to the congressman, because, the group says, he “has appointed himself a local overseer.”