A state House panel heard testimony Thursday on a bill that would ban abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy and later, providing an exception only to save the mother’s life.
“If an abortion must be performed to protect the life of the mother” at 20 weeks or later, “the physician must do so in a manner that provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive,” said state Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, the bill’s sponsor.
Nanney says the abortion restriction – down from 24 weeks of pregnancy now – is necessary because science shows fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.
The bill also would require physicians performing abortions to report the age and race of the pregnant woman and method of abortion. That information could be traced to a patient’s medical records for use in criminal investigations against doctors who break the law.
However, Victoria Middleton of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina told Thursday’s hearing that the bill would be unconstitutional because it limits abortion before 24 weeks of pregnancy and would be an “unwarranted state intervention in medical decisions.”
Under the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, abortions are permitted during the first and second trimester of pregnancy. But states are allowed to ban abortions after the 24th week – the point at which the unborn child is considered “viable,” or able to live outside the womb – if they provide an exception for the woman’s health and life.
Mary Spaulding Balch, state legislative director for National Right to Life, said limiting abortion when the fetus can feel pain is similar to court limitations on the procedure when a fetus is viable. A ban after an unborn child can feel pain would be appropriate, she said, adding she hopes courts will take up the issue.
Activists on both sides of the issue disagree on whether science supports claims that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks.
Margaret Brinley, who has a doctorate in biomedical science and taught at Columbia College for 18 years, said evidence of “fight or flight” responses in fetuses are an indicator that they feel pain.
But the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists says medical studies show that fetuses likely cannot feel pain prior to the third trimester because the part of the brain necessary for pain perception has not fully developed, according to testimony at the hearing.
“Pain perception requires conscious recognition or awareness of a noxious stimulus,” said a spokeswoman from the organization, which opposes the 20-week abortion ban. “Neither withdrawal reflexes nor hormonal stress responses to invasive procedures prove the existence of fetal pain because they can be elicited by nonpainful stimuli and occur without conscious cortical processing.”
Abortions are down in South Carolina, falling to 6,620 in 2011 from 7,300 in 2008, according to a Guttmacher Institute report, which also found abortions are down nationally.
Most abortions occur before the 21st week of pregnancy, and many of the remaining abortions occur after planned pregnancies go terribly wrong, according to Planned Parenthood, a health-services provider and advocate for abortion rights.
“The reality is that abortion later in pregnancy is very rare and often happens under heartbreaking and tragic circumstances,” said Sloane Whelan, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of South Carolina. “During those times, women need support, not additional barriers to obtaining timely, safe health care.”
The House panel postponed action on the bill.
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