AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A proposal to ban abortions in Texas after 20 weeks reignited long-simmering tensions Wednesday night as conservatives in the Legislature sought a first step toward joining other states pushing to narrow the legal window for terminating pregnancies.
At least 10 states have passed bills outlawing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on the disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain at that stage. Judges have struck down or temporarily blocked the law in several states, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other top state Republicans remain undeterred.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, told members of the House State Affairs Committee that technological breakthroughs now provide "anatomical, behavioral and physiological evidence that a developing, unborn child is capable of feeling pain" if a woman waits too long to have an abortion.
"There's technology that we have now that we know more about the development, the feelings, of that unborn child," Laubenberg said. "We have an opportunity to make better decisions, not only about the child but the woman."
Her measure would make doctors who perform the procedure after 20 weeks subject to losing their medical license, the same penalty those who perform abortions after 28 weeks can face under current law.
The first public hearing on Laubenberg's proposal drew a crowd of passionate and at times testy activists on both sides of the issue to testify before the committee long into the evening.
"I believe this bill is a critical step in the protection of vulnerable citizens who have no voice," said Patrick Nunnelly, an Austin obstetrician who said studies have shown that after 20 weeks, fetuses have developed a partial nervous system that allows them to feel pain.
Federal law allows complete bans on abortions after 24 weeks but leaves procedures done between 12 and 24 weeks into pregnancy only subject to state regulation, not outright prohibition.
Abortion rights activists say scientific studies have given no evidence to support the contention that a fetus feels pain after 20 weeks of gestation. But Laubenberg said she "had a whole stack of studies" showing that it can.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat, questioned whether those studies were peer-reviewed. She also noted that less than 2 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks, to which Laubenberg replied, "One abortion, to me, is like one thousand."
"I wish we did not have to be here discussing this. I did not start this. It was started back in the '70s," Laubenberg said, referring to the Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision. "We are not talking about laws any more. We are talking about science and technology."
The Texas ACLU argued that the proposal is unconstitutional, while Heather Busby, of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said deciding to terminate a pregnancy is a "personal, medical decision between a woman and her doctor.
"No lawmaker should interfere in those decisions," Busby said.
A supporter of the bill, meanwhile, held up a banana and said a fetus after 20 weeks can grow to be about that size.
The committee also heard a separate measure by Houston Republican Rep. Sarah Davis seeking to remove requirements that doctors statewide inform women undergoing abortions that the procedure could increase their risk of breast cancer.
Davis said that since 2003, women have been told of a specious link between abortion and breast cancer as part of Texas' "informed consent" requirements — but there is no credible medical evidence a link actually exists.
"I think it was based more on ideology than science," Davis said of the 2003 law. She called the breast cancer link "patently offensive" given that the federal National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and other top medical organizations say the theory is bunk.
"These are not fringe groups," Davis said. "So I would ask that you vote to live in fact, and not fiction."
Beverly Knuckles, a physician in New Braunfels and a board member of the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life, joined other opponents in disputing the research cited by Davis.
Giving birth at a younger age, as well as breastfeeding, does show to lower the risk of breast cancer. Knuckles seized on that widely accepted science while under sometimes intense questioning and skepticism from Democrats on the committee.
"We're just letting them know that this pregnancy may cut their risk of breast cancer in half," Knuckles said.
House Bill 2364: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB02364
Davis' House Bill 2945: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB02945