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The District of Columbia's voice goes silent

I haven’t been an official resident of Washington, DC -- my hometown -- for almost two decades.
Chuck Brown.
Chuck Brown.

I haven’t been an official resident of Washington, DC -- my hometown -- for almost two decades.  But the DC girl is still strong in me, and this week, she’s been thinking a lot about (what was formerly known as) "Chocolate City."

You see, despite the fact that the District of Columbia is the one place in the country where Americans are denied the right to meaningful representation in Congress, make no mistake, Washington -- and Washingtonians -- have a voice.  And this week it’s being silenced in more ways than one. 

The white dome of the U.S. Capitol building may sit square in the center of the city, but the heart of DC for the last four decades has been the percussive conga-driven thump of the city’s indigenous gogo music. That heart just skipped few beats this week with the death of Chuck Brown, the godfather of gogo, beloved in Washington as the unofficial spokesman for the city.

He died Wednesday at the age of 75, but right up until his recent hospitalization for pneumonia, he still “cranked” (DC parlance for igniting a stage and an audience with a live gogo performance). Thanks to Chuck, and the countless gogo artists and bands he’s inspired, DC has a one-of-a-kind voice all its own.

So maybe Republicans on Capitol Hill missed the memo that Washingtonians, and specifically Washington women, don’t need a bunch of men to speak on their behalf.  Because this week, one of those men showed a stunning disregard for the voices of women in Washington – and their right to choose -- with a restrictive, and unnecessary, piece of legislation.  

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) has proposed a new law that would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy for women in the District of Columbia.  Reread that sentence, because there’s several things wrong with it. First of all, Congressman Franks is a representative from Arizona, the same state whose greatest hits include the original "papers, please" law. Is it all that surprising that an Arizona congressman wants to make restrictive rules for women who he doesn’t even represent? 

Since DC isn’t a state, the city isn’t entitled to any representation in Congress (Though the federal government will gladly accept their tax dollars. I believe the last time a group of citizens had that grievance, thirteen colonies set off the American Revolution). A single elected delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, speaks in the House for the people of Washington, but she's not allowed to vote.

But her voice was silent at Thursday's hearing about the bill, whose fancy official title is H.R. 3803, the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Congressman Franks rejected her request to speak on behalf of the women of Washington, DC.

And in so doing, he managed to kill two birds with one stone -- restricting both the Constitutional and reproductive rights of Washington women at the same time.

His justification for throwing DC's women under the bus is that he feels the fetus' pain. The law -- like those passed in six other states in the last two years -- is based on the contested evidence that a 20 week-old fetus can experience pain.

What isn't contested, however, is that the vast majority of women who have abortions do so well before 20 weeks.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, nine out of every 10 pregnancies occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. So it’s not like there’s an epidemic of women running around six-months pregnant, and suddenly thinking “You know what?  This whole having a kid thing?  Actually, not for me.” If you’ve made it two-thirds of the way through incubating a small human, you’ve pretty much committed to being a mother.  

Do you know who is more likely to get an abortion after 12 weeks? Women who discover their child has an abnormality that would cause it live a short, painful life after it is born. Women who are too poor to afford an abortion when they first find out they're pregnant, and have to take time to save money to pay for it. Women who are young. Women who experience multiple disruptive life events like losing a job, separating from a partner, or are victims of domestic violence.

In short, the law would take the choice away from all women in DC, but specifically, those women whose choices are already limited to begin with.

I don't doubt the sincerity of Congressman Franks' concern for fetal feelings. But, given his aggressive pursuit of a needless law in a politically vulnerable district that just so happens to be timed smack in the middle of a presidential election year?  I also don't doubt the he's equally motivated to score political points by appealing to the feelings of the Republican anti-choice voting base too.

Playing political games with women's lives?  I'll let Chuck speak for the women of Washington -- we're not playing your games, baby.