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House Panel Debates "Fetal Pain" Bill

The House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday took testimony on the controversial so-called fetal pain bill, a measure backed by Gov. Rick Perry and abortion opponents.

Abortion pill, Cytotec

The House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday took testimony on the controversial so-called fetal pain bill, a measure backed by Gov. Rick Perry and abortion opponents who argue that 20 weeks is the point at which fetuses can feel pain.

House Bill 2364, by state Reps. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would prohibit abortions after that point. The bill would shorten the timeframe in which a woman could legally obtain an abortion in Texas by seven weeks, as current law already prohibits abortions during the third trimester unless the health or life of the mother is at stake or there are fetal abnormalities.

After introducing the bill, Laubenberg went head to head with state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who opposes the bill, on whether there is sufficient scientific evidence to support the assertion that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks of development.

“I will very gladly place my studies against your studies,” said Laubenberg. She later added, “We’re talking about science and technology, which you folks are all for, telling us things that we didn’t know before that we know now.”

While peer-reviewed studies show that fetuses have developed incomplete nervous systems at 20 weeks and therefore react to stimulus, there is not consensus on whether this reflex indicates that fetuses feel pain. 

Farrar pointed to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 2005 which found that “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

“This is the largest medical association, this isn’t a fringe group. … This is the mainstream medical information,” said Farrar. She also cited reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 1.3 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks.

“We’re putting her health at risk because somehow we think this is going to stop women from having abortions,” she said.

Dr. Ingrid Skop, an obstetrician and gynecologist in San Antonio, testified in favor of the bill, saying that she has "seen fetuses withdraw their limbs when they encounter the amniotic needle."

“Admittedly we do not know how a fetus feels about this pain," she said, "but we also do not know how a tortured kitten feels and yet we have laws against that abuse.”

The bill contains an exception to allow an abortion if the mother’s life is in danger or if a physician believes the pregnancy poses “serious risk of substantial or irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, other than a psychological condition.”

If the bill passes, Texas would become the 10th state to ban abortions after 20 weeks. Other states that approved “fetal pain” laws have faced legal challenges. 

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said the bill is unconstitutional because it bans abortions before fetal viability.

“This bill has a serious lack of exceptions that leave women in the most dire situations with no alternative,” added Busby, emphasizing that the bill does not include an exception for victims of rape or incest or instances of fetal abnormalities. “No lawmaker can possibly know the circumstances of every woman, and therefore no lawmaker should interfere in those decisions.”

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