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House panel tells doctors to save prematurely born babies, regardless of survival chances

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Rejecting concerns of doctors, a House panel voted along party lines, 6-3, late March 15 to require them to do everything possible to keep a severely premature baby alive no matter the chances of survival.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said both state and federal law already require doctors to provide care to live-born babies, whether due to abortion and whether elective or induced, as well as other premature delivery. His measure would require state health officials to come up with rules of exactly what they must do to keep alive any baby born after 20 weeks of gestation.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Evangelical Christian lobby Center for Arizona Policy, cited an abortion case that resulted in a live birth, but where the baby girl was allowed to die. She said in that case, the girl sat on a cold steel table for an hour and 18 minutes without getting medical care.

But Peter Stevenson, a neonatologist, said the problem with SB1367 is that it is not limited to abortions.

He said there is zero chance of survival for a baby born before 22 weeks.

At 22 weeks, he said, there is an 11 percent chance of survival under “optimal” conditions, including the delivery at a Level 3 trauma center. And about a third of those children will suffer severe complications.

Only at 23 weeks does the chance of survival reach 40 percent.

“This bill would compel us to perform painful treatments that have no possible benefit to this baby or fetus,” Stevenson told members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, argued that’s already required by law.

Stevenson countered that the law does not require doctors to provide care that is considered “futile.” And he said for a baby born at 20 or 21 weeks, “all therapy other than comfort care is futile.”

Hugh Miller, a doctor specializing in high-risk pregnancies, said part of the problem is that the legislation adds something not in existing law: evidence of what is considered “life.”

Specifically, it includes breathing, a heartbeat, umbilical cord pulsation or “definite movement of voluntary muscles.” And any one of those triggers the requirement, with doctors who do not comply subject to civil suit.

Miller said there are babies born long before viability that can show one or more signs.

“The fact that there are these signs of life does not mean… that any medical intervention will be successful in sustaining that life,” he told lawmakers. “What we can do is we can tragically instrument those kids (through intubation) and deprive those families of the last few moments of meaningful contact and nurturing with the very loved one that we want them to spend those last moments with.”

Farnsworth said that scenario doesn’t work in situations where a woman doesn’t want the child in the first place and actively sought to abort the fetus. In that case, he said, the wishes of the parent of whether efforts should be made to keep the baby alive should not matter.

Miller, however, said the legislation is far broader than the legislative intent to deal with elective abortions.

“They won’t be that scenario you’re describing,” he told Farnsworth. “These will be your daughters, your sisters, your grandchildren who want that child” but “something tragic” happens that keeps that from occurring.

“And now,” he continued, “we’re going to insist that they go through this other form of assault.”

But Christine Accurso, who described herself as the mother of eight, with five lost in miscarriage, said she sees the issue differently.

“Every child deserves the help and medical care to live,” she said.

Maureen Williams countered that the legislation ignores situations like hers.

Williams said she had an abortion at 23 weeks after doctors found her fetus was missing vertebrae and had tumors on the liver. She said the doctors told her that her daughter had barely any chance of living one year “and it would be a painful life in the hospital.”

Her decision was to have an abortion.

“If my daughter was born alive at this clinic, I would have rather given her comfort care,” she told lawmakers. “I would have wanted her on my chest and let her pass away in peace.”

Herrod said that’s irrelevant.

“This is still an elective abortion,” she said.

“The intent of the abortion is to not have a living child result,” Herrod continued. And she said doctors should be required to provide any available care.

“This is about babies and giving a babies a chance at life and not leaving them to die,” she added.

But Rep. Kirsten Engle, D-Tucson, said taking away a premature child to put them through medical treatments that won’t save the life is “nothing short of cruel.”

Farnsworth, however, said once that baby is born, it has a constitutional right to life and the Legislature is entitled to ensure that everything is done to protect that right.

The measure has already been approved by the Senate, albeit in a slightly different fashion, and now goes to the full House.

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