A bill that will criminalize a doctor who performs an abortion after 20 weeks of gestation passed the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Thursday evening on a muffled, split voice vote.
The bill, which sets out to protect a fetus from pain by prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks, will be on second reading on the Senate floor today.
The Judiciary Committee’s attorney said that the bill as written is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment by denying women equal protection of laws. The attorney said “alleged pain of fetus bills” similar to this one, particularly Arizona’s, have been found to be unconstitutional. Further, the attorney said, the bill violates a woman’s right to privacy.
Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land since 1973, and has been upheld in the Supreme Court since that time.
His legal expertise was countered by John Carey, the West Virginians For Life legislative liaison for 16 years, who said other states’ similar bills that were overturned have been about access to clinics, not fetal pain.
“What is constitutional?” Carey asked. He said there are eight states where attorneys general and legislators say similar laws are constitutional.
“This is a new question; we’re talking about the baby, we’re not talking about viability — we’re talking about pain,” he continued.
Carey said there is a substantial body of evidence to say that a fetus does feel pain.
Not so, said Dr. Luis Bracero, a physician with Charleston Area Medical Center who specializes in maternal and fetal medicine.
“It’s based on development,” Bracero said after the committee meeting. “The issue of fetal pain is theoretical and is based on the development of the central nervous system.”
The doctor said that development occurs at 24 to 26 weeks and is fully mature at 29 to 30 weeks of gestation.
“They are appealing to emotion rather than fact,” the doctor said.
Bracero spoke to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Resources earlier this week.
Doctors who spoke to the Judiciary Committee Thursday said the bill interferes with how they care for their patients.
Dr. Stephen Bush, a physician at Charleston Area Medical Center, said the bill “criminalizes accepted national standards of care.”
Bush described maternal and fetal medical conditions which would call for a termination under those standards. He said the law may make doctors delay the care of their patients because of the monetary penalty, $4,000.
“This will eliminate our ability to take care of patients,” Bush said. “This is very upsetting to us.”
Bush does not perform voluntary interruption of pregnancy, he said.
Dr. Lori Tucker, an obstetrics and gynecological doctor in Princeton, said she is pro-life, but also faces the reality of wo-men’s health care every day.
“There are times when it is appropriate and important for us to counsel our patients according to risk benefits and alternatives,” she said. “Sometimes termination of pregnancy is the appropriate and medically proven right thing to offer, as hard as that is.”
“The 20-to-24-week period is very critical,” she said. Tucker said if a diagnosis at 16 weeks calls for further testing, the ability to see a specialist in another city may be prevented by weather or ability to get an appointment for weeks.
“By then we’re past 20 weeks,” she said. “What am I supposed to tell my patients?”
“The American College of Ob-Gyns, the State Medical Association and the American Medical Association have all come out strongly against this legislation and yet it seems to fall on deaf ears,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, the director of West Virginia Free. “We think this is a very sad day for the women of West Virginia, the men who love them and the doctors who care for them.”
Pomponio said the bill is political, rather than about improving wo-men’s health care.
“It’s taking medicine out of the hands of doctors and putting it into the hands of legislators, and clearly they’re confused about what that kind of medicine should look like,” Pomponio said. “We hear about government overreach and yet here we see the Legislature overreach into the most private of decisions.
“Apparently it’s OK to use women’s health as a football.”
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