The Times West Virginian

March 5, 2014

Committee approves 20-week abortion limit

Constitutionality of bill doesn’t appear to be primary concern

By Pamela Pritt
(Beckley) Register-Herald

CHARLESTON — Whether or not a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation is constitutional did not appear of to be the primary concern of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Resources on Tuesday, as they passed the bill out of committee with one amendment.

The bill proposes to protect unborn children capable of feeling pain.  

In this version of the bill, doctors who perform later-term abortions would be guilty of a misdemeanor rather than a felony, which was in the version passed by the House of Delegates last week. The bill would require a doctor to determine the probable post-fertilization age of a fetus, and would allow abortions to avert the mother’s death or damage to her major organs.

Delegate Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said his research showed that 40 other states have passed similar legislation with gestation time of 24 weeks, while states which have bans at 20 weeks have been deemed unconstitutional.

The committee heard from a variety of doctors and other health care professionals on both sides of the fetal pain issue.

Dr. Luis Bracero, a physician with the Charleston Area Medical Center who specializes in maternal and fetal medicine, said the question of fetal pain has been decided in a majority of the literature he’s read.

Bracero said the “expert consensus” is that a fetus feels no pain up to 24 weeks.

However, pregnancy for a woman can be and is a stresser on her overall health, the doctor said.

Women can experience diminished immune systems, hypertension and cardiac conditions, all of which can lead to conditions prompting termination at or even after 20 weeks, Bracero said. He also noted that West Virginia has a high rate of maternal mortality.

“(You should) leave the decision between a woman and her doctor,” Bracero said. “You should not be criminalizing doctors. We have to have a little bit more empathy; everybody has their own story.”

The doctor said he has never seen a complication from abortion in his 35 years of medical practice.

“Very few, if any, occur,” he said.

Via Jenny Entsminger, executive director of Crossroads Pregnancy Center, Dr. Byron Calhoun, also a specialist in maternal and fetal medicine, said that a fetus does feel pain at 16 to 20 weeks.

Calhoun was not able to attend the meeting; Entsminger read his statement.

His statement said that when he performs amniocentesis at 16 to 20 weeks of gestation, the fetus reacts on the ultrasound “when they feel the needle.” He asked the committee to reject the practice of abortion at 20 weeks or later.

Calhoun made news last year when he contacted Attorney General Patrick Morrisey saying that he weekly sees women who have had botched abortions.

The administrator of CAMC’s Women and Children’s Hospital, S. Andrew Weber, responded to those claims in January. Weber said the hospital staff in 2012 saw two women who had  complications after a legally induced abortion.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, asked Entsminger if she would “rather have a 24-week bill or a 20-week bill.”

“The earlier the better,” Entsminger replied.

Dr. David Jude, vice-chair of the West Virginia Chapter of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, asked the committee to determine at what point doctors are to decide the “mom is sick enough to end the pregnancy.”

“I don’t want to be on-call and wonder if I’m going to be prosecuted,” Jude said. “How do I determine when they’re sick enough?”

Jude said the bill could not define all the pregnancy complications that are going to put expectant mothers at risk.

An amendment to change the bill to ban abortions after 24 weeks, and thus more likely to be upheld in higher courts, was overwhelmingly voted down, while the amendment to lessen the penalty for doctors passed unanimously.

The bill moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Health and Human Resources also passed out of committee a bill that allows mothers to breastfeed children in public. Committee members amended the bill to again include that the mother must use discretion while feeding her child in a public place.

This bill moves to the Judiciary Committee, as well.