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."
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