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Sweeping anti-abortion bills facing hurdles

The pro-life community suffered a setback Wednesday when two proposals that would add a host of requirements before an abortion could be performed failed to get committee approval.

A bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks and another that would define human life as beginning at conception stalled in the Republican-led Legislature.

HB2838, sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, was held after two hours of debate that was punctuated by contradictory medical testimony.

Under that bill, physicians could be punished with professional misconduct – the original charge of a Class 5 felony was removed by an amendment – if they perform an abortion after the fetus is past 20 weeks of gestation.

The measure is being pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, the influential pro-life group that has successfully gotten other broad regulations passed into law over the past several years.

Deborah Sheasby, CAP legal counsel, said that the bill was intended to protect the health of the mother.

Yee quoted figures from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy analysis group, that the mortality rate for abortions increases from one per 29,000 at 16 to 20 weeks to one per 11,000 at 21 or more weeks.

But other committee members and people testifying, including physicians, pointed out that carrying a pregnancy to term includes its own risks, including preeclampsia and the risk of developing a pulmonary embolism.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2006, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births.

They also challenged CAP’s assertion that medical evidence showed that a fetus can feel pain by 20 weeks, arguing that there was no consensus in the medical community on the issue.

Scottsdale Obstetrics and Gynecology physician Eric Reuss testified against the bill, arguing that supporters were cherry-picking medical articles, some of which were published more than 20 years ago, that supported their premise.

“If you’re just picking out certain articles that agree with what you say, that’s fine, but that does not provide the full picture,” Reuss said. “You have to always take into account that figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

Other committee members raised concerns about the imprecise nature of gestational age estimates.

Rep. Matt Heinz, a hospital physician, argued that the state was setting up a situation where a doctor could see his career cut short by miscalculating a fetus’ age by a matter of days.

“In a medical malpractice case, which this could potentially become, the 20-week margin could be supported and refuted by a half dozen medical professionals,” he said, adding that it could be left up to a judge to determine the difference between 19 weeks and six days, or 20 weeks and one day.

During his testimony, Reuss said that the accuracy of the estimate, based on an ultrasound, goes from being within days for the first trimester, to within 10 days for the second, and between 2 and 3 weeks for the third trimester.

Sheasby acknowledged that there was no precise way to determine how far a woman was along in a pregnancy. However, she argued that as long as a doctor had acted in good faith and under a reasonable assumption that the mother was not yet 20 weeks along, then the doctor would not face punishment.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said that the gray area concerned her, and she would like to see language in the bill that imposed an actual definition of 20 weeks. Without it, she said, she was concerned about the doctors who perform abortions based on the patient’s request, but who are later sued under the premise that the fetus was actually more than 20 weeks old.

Committee chairman Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, decided to hold the bill so members could consider the new information presented in testimony.

Over in the Senate, SB1494 would define the fetus from the moment of conception as a human being, a move that would effectively ban abortion at all stages of the pregnancy.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, emphasized his bill’s provisions, which include requiring physicians to inform the mother 24 hours before the abortion that the procedure would terminate a “whole, separate, unique, living human being.”

“When a woman goes in considering abortion, many times, from what I’ve heard, they’re told it’s just a blob of cells inside of you,” Smith said, adding he doesn’t want the gravity of the situation to be lost.

The proposal would set up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that said state laws criminalizing abortion except life-saving procedures violated women’s privacy rights.

But Smith’s bill may be one step too far, even for pro-life lawmakers.

“I’m not necessarily persuaded at the moment that that’s a winning political issue,” said Sen. Steve Yarbrough, a conservative lawmaker and ally of the Center for Arizona Policy. He added that the pro-life movement might want to see who the next U.S. president is and the justices who will be appointed to the country’s highest court before heading in that direction.

Sheasby refused to specifically comment on Smith’s proposal but acknowledged, like Yarbrough, that it may not be the most prudent approach.

“Speaking separately from his bill, it’s not a strategic approach that we are advancing at this time because we think that there may be other states or other timing that may work better for that type of strategy, and it doesn’t seem like that’s the right strategy for right now in Arizona,” she said.

In any case, the proposal wasn’t discussed in the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee — even though it was originally scheduled for a hearing today.

Sen. Linda Gray, chairwoman of the committee, said there was “consensus” for Yee’s measure to go forward.

Timing is crucial for both bills. This is the last week for senators and representatives to hear their own bills.

If the two abortion bills fail to get out of committee, their supporters would have to resort to parliamentary maneuvers to keep them alive.

Abortion opponents did get one victory today, however, as a measure to ban state funding to Planned Parenthood passed out of committee.

HB2800, sponsored by Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, would prioritize how the state appropriates money to health centers and prohibits any organization that performs abortions from receiving state funds.

Although taxpayer money is already banned from being used to fund abortions, organizations like Planned Parenthood can still receive funding for other health services, which Olson called a “loophole.”

Even if the money that goes directly to abortion procedures is raised privately, if that clinic is also receiving public funding, he argued that those funds are effectively subsidizing abortion.

Theresa Ulmer, lobbying on behalf of Planned Parenthood, said that the bill would leave many low-income women with limited access to healthcare.

“You’re basically coming after low income people and saying they’re less than, for instance, me, who can afford healthcare,” she said.

The bill passed committee on a party line vote, with the six Republicans voting in favor and the three Democrats voting against it.

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