Abortion Opponents Back Fetal Pain Bill, Doctor Rules

Wooden crosses are planted outside the Whole Woman's Health center parking lot in McAllen, Texas.
Wooden crosses are planted outside the Whole Woman's Health center parking lot in McAllen, Texas.

Abortion opponents in Texas championed a string of successful measures in the 2011 Texas legislative session — including a law that requires a physician to perform a sonogram 24 hours in advance of an abortion. For the upcoming 2013 session, they are trying to up the ante.

In addition to an already filed bill that would tighten restrictions on abortion doctors, they are considering other legislation, like a “fetal pain” bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, and a measure to prevent health providers affiliated with abortion clinics from participating in the state’s Medicaid program.

Elizabeth Graham, the director of Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy organization, said, “The numbers are definitely on the pro-life side” because of the Republican majority in the state Legislature. “What we can’t predict,” Graham said, “are the dynamics and the politics.”

She said she hopes Texas will become the nation’s 10th state with a law banning abortions after 20 weeks, a measure based on the premise among some researchers that fetuses can feel pain at that gestational age. Some lawmakers have already pledged their support for such a bill.

Currently, Texas law prohibits abortions during the third trimester unless the health or life of the mother is at stake or if there are fetal abnormalities. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 2005 found “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

Blake Rocap, the legislative director for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said his organization would fight such a bill, and that decisions about abortion should be left to a woman, her family and her physician. “This legislation appeals and panders to a very narrow slice of the most socially conservative primary voters in the state,” Rocap said

Joe Pojman, the executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said his organization’s “big goal” in the upcoming session is to “continue to defund Planned Parenthood” by banning health providers affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the state’s Medicaid program.

Last session, lawmakers approved a similar rule for the Women’s Health Program, a Medicaid waiver program for low-income women, which is still being legally contested by Planned Parenthood. The move prompted the federal government, which jointly finances Medicaid with the state, to pull money for the program — an indication that the Obama administration would have little patience for a similar measure applied to the full Medicaid program.

Pojman also supports a bill filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the author of last session’s abortion sonogram law, that would require doctors to be physically present to administer the two prescription drugs used to induce abortions during the first seven weeks of pregnancy.

The abortion-inducing drugs are taken two days apart, placing a particular burden on the roving doctors who perform abortions in remote areas of the state. The Food and Drug Administration currently does not require a physician to administer the second medication, and most clinics let the woman take it at home. Pojman said a physician should be present “for safety reasons.”

“It is completely unnecessary to return to the clinic for the second medication,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates five abortion clinics in Texas. “That’s unprecedented in this country.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state the 2005 study on whether the capacity of fetal pain occurs before 20 weeks was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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