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Abortion bill stirs debate on chances of a premature newborn’s survival

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State lawmakers voted Wednesday to mandate that doctors have to try to resuscitate any fetus born alive — even if is not viable.

SB 1367 spells out that a baby is considered alive if it is outside of the mother’s womb, if it shows any evidence of breathing, a heartbeat, umbilical cord pulsation or “definitive movement of voluntary muscles.” And it would not matter how far along the pregnancy had proceeded.

The legislation is aimed at requiring clinics that perform abortions at 20 weeks or more to have equipment available to provide care if there is a live birth. And it requires the Department of Health Services to craft rules of what kind of care medical staff must provide in these circumstances.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said there were two such instances in Arizona where abortions resulted in live births but the children died due to lack of care.

But what made the bill controversial is that the same requirement to provide medical care would apply even in situations where a woman was not trying to terminate the pregnancy.

Kelley Saunders, a doctor representing the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said a baby may be born severely premature.

“Infants between 20 and 22 weeks of gestation have a zero percent chance of survival even if they are born with a heartbeat and movement,” she told members of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services.

“Parents of these infants just want to hold their babies and be peacefully with them until they pass,” Saunders said. “To subject these babies and their parents and their families to draconian measures that don’t work is cruel, immoral and completely against the standard of care.”

But Paul Liu, a doctor at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said that’s making assumptions about when a baby is really viable.

Liu told lawmakers the cutoff used to be considered 26 weeks. Now the general medical consensus puts viability at 24 weeks.

“And now there are actually case reports of babies at 21 weeks who have survived with minimal complications,” he said. “As our science has grown better, we have been able to push the limits of viability further and further back.”

More to the point, Liu said the only way doctors will find out if viability is even earlier is to try to save the lives of every baby born prematurely.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said Saunders appears to be saying that it would be a “psychological trauma” to families to try to save a premature baby through resuscitation and other medical intervention.

“But don’t you think it’s a psychological trauma to the family if you let the baby die?” she asked.

Saunders conceded these are difficult situations, particularly in cases where this was a desired pregnancy. But she said that, given current science, a baby delivered at 20 weeks is going to die, no matter what doctors try to do.

“Extending the time that family has to grieve with that baby, as opposed to providing measures that quite frankly might be cruel and painful to the baby since it’s been born, I just think is a very difficult thing to mandate and ask people to do,” Saunders said.

Liu, however, had a different take on situations where doctors begin resuscitation efforts.

“We invite the parents to join us to witness what our attempts are,” he said.

“There’s nothing worse for a parent to think ‘what if?’ ” Liu explained. “We would join them to show to them we’ve done everything we possibly could to resuscitate your child.”

Lesko sided with proponents of the legislation.

“Letting a baby die just doesn’t seem acceptable to me,” she said.

The fact that the legislation is aimed at abortion providers was underscored by an amendment added by Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, which allows a parent of a fetus delivered alive to claim in court that not all efforts were taken to keep it alive and seek monetary damages for psychological, emotional or physical injuries. But that right to sue applies only in cases where the live birth was from an abortion and not when it was from a premature delivery.

The 5-2 vote sends the measure to the full Senate.

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