Mo. proposed 20-week cut-off for abortions meets praise, criticism

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 ~ Updated 7:48 PM
Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, testifies at a committee hearing Tuesday on his proposed bill setting a 20-week limit on abortions. (Tim Sampson/Missouri News Horizon)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A proposed law to limit the use of late-term abortions in Missouri by recasting the definition of a viable unborn child met with both praise and criticism Tuesday at a Senate hearing.

Supporters of the bill, which makes it a felony to abort a medically viable fetus 20 weeks or more into a pregnancy, call it a common-sense solution to moral issues raised by late-term abortions. But critics say it creates an arbitrary, unscientific cut-off point that further erodes abortion rights.

"We believe that when [fetuses] become viable, that they are, as all human life, valuable and need to be protected," said Senate President Pro Tem Robert Mayer, R-Dexter, who sponsored the legislation.

Under Mayer's bill, the definition of viability is broadened to mean a reasonable likelihood that the life of an unborn child can be sustained independently of a mother, with or without artificial support. Any woman who is more than 20 weeks pregnant requesting an abortion would be required to undergo a test to determine viability under this standard. If a doctor determines the fetus is viable, they would not be allowed to perform an abortion under penalty of a year in prison, up to $50,000 in fines and suspension of their medical license for three years.

If a doctor were to determine that a child is not viable, they would have to obtain an impartial second opinion from an independent physician confirming the finding. The finding would also have to be reported to the state.

But opponents criticize the bill as an attempt to further diminish the reproductive rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. Pamela Sumners, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, said that proposed definition of "sustained life" contained in the bill diverges from previous definitions established by the courts.

"The new language would be a significant change," Sumners said. "It would change it to when life can be sustained. It's far looser, vaguer and it seems to me to accord less well with what Roe v. Wade defined as a sort of meaningful scope of life outside the womb."

Sumners also argued that the 20-week mark had no basis in scientific consensus.

"This 20-week benchmark -- this sort of bright line -- really doesn't have support in the science, because what we find is that no delivered babe has ever survived less than 21 weeks," she said.

The bill does lay out one scenario in which late-term abortions of viable fetuses would be acceptable. Abortions would be permitted in any cases where a mother's life is threatened by carrying a child to term, but not in cases of incest or rape.

Joe Ortwerth of the Missouri Family Policy Council testified in favor of the bill, saying it would strike a balance between rights of women and unborn children. He also argued that most polls show people are overwhelmingly against elective late-term abortions, but that many mistakenly believe that bans on partial-birth abortions also prohibit late-term abortions.

Ortwerth argued that once a fetus has become viable, the unborn child's rights take precedent.

"The viability line has a practical element of fairness to it," he said. "That in some sense it might be said that a woman who failed to act before viability has consented to the state's intervention on behalf of the developing child."

The Senate General Laws Committee, which heard the bill, did not take any additional action on the matter.

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