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Perry Backs 'Fetal Pain' Bill

Wants to outlaw abortion after week 20
Jordan Smith, 10:14am, Wed. Dec. 12, 2012
Illustration by Jason Stout

As expected, Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday announced his support for a bill that would outlaw all abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Appearing at the crisis pregnancy center-turned women's med clinic, The Source for Women in Houston, Perry lauded the work of crisis pregnancy centers and said that the state has made "major steps" in ensuring that women seeking abortion make "the most informed, responsible" decisions possible, but that when there are "80,000 lives lost to abortion each year in our state, we know our work is far from over," he said.

As such, Perry said he is "calling on the legislature to strengthen our ban on the procedure, prohibiting abortion at the point a baby can feel the pain of being killed." That is, for right-to-lifers, at 20 weeks gestation.

Of course, the notion that a fetus can actually feel pain that early is suspect. According to a 2005 review of the evidence on fetal pain published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while a fetus may exhibit base reflexes it isn't until well into the third-trimester that nerves are developed enough to actually register what we consider pain.

Nonetheless, laws similar to that which Perry says he'll support have been passed in a handful of states, and have brought with them plenty of legal controversy. Arizona's law criminalizes most abortions after 20 weeks except in narrow "immediate" emergency situations – forcing doctors caring for women in high-risk pregnancies to wait until a situation has become dire before offering abortion care. Indeed, there is also no exception to allow for the abortion of a fetus that is unlikely to survive birth. The ACLU of Arizona has challenged the law on behalf of a doctor who argues that the measure hamstrings his ability to care for his patients. A state court upheld the law this summer, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering whether that ruling will stand.

Among those who say such a ban threatens women is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which filed a brief in support of the ACLU's Arizona suit. A ban on abortions "after 20 weeks of pregnancy will not further or protect maternal health. Rather, it will do just the opposite," reads the ACOG brief. "The ban will jeopardize women's health by severely curtailing physicians' ability to treat patients who face serious health conditions later in pregnancy and will force women to carry pregnancies to term when their fetuses suffer from serious impairments."

None of this seems to have impressed Perry who appeared in Houston along with state Senator-elect Donna Campbell, R-San Antonio, who defeated long-time moderate, and pro-choice, GOP Sen. Jeff Wentworth, to deliver a hard right turn for the gerrymandered district that includes portions of Travis County. Indeed, Campbell clapped loudly as Perry proclaimed that his goal, "and the goal of many of those joining me here today, is to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past." While Roe v. Wade wouldn't yet allow that, he noted that the law does allow states to curtail abortion where it can demonstrate a compelling state interest to do so. "I don't think there is any issue that better fits the definition of 'compelling state interest' than preventing the suffering of our state's unborn," he said. "We cannot, and we will not, stand idly by while the unborn are going through the agony of having their lives ended."

Whether preventing alleged fetal pain would qualify as a compelling state interest is unclear. Not only is the science of the claim that a 20-week-old fetus feels pain in doubt, but abortions after 20 weeks are already extremely rare. Out of 77,592 abortions performed in Texas in 2010, the most recent year with complete statistics, just 420 procedures occurred after 20 weeks. And when those abortions are performed, it is almost always the result of a serious medical situation, according to NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. "It is especially outrageous to take options away from women who could be in tragic situations," Heather Busby, the group's executive director said in a press release. "We trust women, their families, and their doctors to make the most appropriate medical decisions for their unique circumstances."

Perry also told supporters that he will support a measure that would require abortion clinics to be held to the same standards as surgical facilities and one that would require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital. Both measures are recent favorites of pro-life groups across the country. "Again, the ideal world is a world without abortion," Perry said. "Until then, we're going to continue to pass laws to ensure abortions are as rare as possible under existing law."

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