The United States Catholic bishops have endorsed a Senate plan to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy at the federal level, calling it a “positive step toward protecting the right to life of preborn children.”

The legislation, called the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act,” would set a federal minimum protection for unborn children at the 15th week of pregnancy. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, would still allow states to restrict abortion earlier in pregnancy, but no later than 15 weeks. 

“Not only does abortion end the life of the preborn child, but it is frequently harmful to the mother, emotionally and physically,” Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said in a letter to Graham

“Late-term abortions, such as those performed when the preborn child is 15 weeks or older, pose significant physical, and potentially fatal, risks to the mother,” Burbidge added.

The chairman said a 15-week ban is “a step toward fulfilling the ultimate imperative that all preborn children be protected from the moment of conception and that mothers be supported” and encouraged other members of Congress to co-sponsor the legislation.

“Science continues to reveal the amazing development and characteristics of babies in utero, such as their ability to respond to music, to their mother’s voice, and to other stimuli,” Burbidge said in his letter. “Furthermore, there is significant scientific evidence that babies can feel pain as early as 12 weeks’ gestation.”

Burbidge cited a report published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, which found that “the evidence, and a balanced reading of that evidence, points towards an immediate and unreflective pain experience … from as early as 12 weeks” and stated: “[We] no longer view fetal pain … in a gestational window of 12–24 weeks as impossible based on the neuroscience.”

Although the bishops support the 15-week proposal as a starting point, Burbidge emphasized that the Church urges that the government protect preborn children from the moment of conception. 

“The Catholic Church remains clear and consistent in asserting that true justice demands protection for the right to life, the most basic human and civil right, for every child, from conception onward,” Burbidge said. “No person or government has the right to take the life of any innocent human being, regardless of his or her stage of development. We will never cease working for laws that protect human life from its beginning, supporting mothers in need, and ultimately making abortion unthinkable. It is long past time to provide more life-affirming alternatives that support and protect both mother and child.”

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After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, lawmakers in about two dozen states imposed more restrictions on abortion than were previously allowed under the Roe precedent. The case also opened the door to the federal government changing its laws on abortion.

Graham initially introduced the 15-week proposal in September of last year. In a statement at that time, he argued that it would put the United States in line with several European countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Spain. 

“After Roe v. Wade was overturned, Democrats in Congress have rallied behind pro-choice legislation which allows abortion right up until the moment of birth,” Graham said in September 2022. “I view the Democrat proposal as radical and one that Americans will ultimately reject. Our legislation is a responsible alternative as we provide exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life and physical health of the mother.”

Abortion has become the subject of a major policy debate among lawmakers and during elections since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has been urging lawmakers to support a 15-week ban at the federal level.

Many Democratic lawmakers have spoken against further restrictions on abortion, but the plan has support among numerous Republicans. Some Republican presidential candidates have backed the 15-week plan, including Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. Former President Donald Trump has not directly answered the question when asked and Vivek Ramaswamy opposes federal rules on abortion.