Topeka Two major anti-abortion bills cleared a Kansas Senate committee Monday, including a measure that tightens restrictions on abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy based on disputed assertions that the fetus can feel pain.
The Judiciary Committee endorsed the bills on separate voice votes, sending them to the Senate for debate, probably later this week.
The fetal pain bill is patterned after a law enacted last year in Nebraska. The second measure would require doctors to obtain the written consent of both parents before performing an abortion on a minor, rewriting a state law that now requires that one parent be notified of an abortion beforehand.
Both bills have already passed the House, and new Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent who’s urged legislators to create a “culture of life,” is considered likely to sign them. But abortion opponents have worried that their legislation could stall in the Senate, where members often have been less enthusiastic than their House counterparts about rewriting abortion laws.
“We’re very pleased the bills are moving forward,” said Kathy Ostrowski, a lobbyist for the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life.
Abortion-rights supporters have relied on the ability of sympathetic GOP senators to slow down anti-abortion proposals or keep them bottled up in committee, or on Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson to veto objectionable measures. But Brownback, a Republican, took office in January, with large GOP majorities in both legislative chambers, making changes in abortion laws more likely.
“Combined, these two bills limit access to abortion care to some of the most vulnerable women in the state,” said Sarah Gillooly, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which operates an abortion clinic in the Kansas City-area suburb of Overland Park.
Kansas law already restricts abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy if a doctor determines the fetus is viable, or able to survive outside the womb. Then, an abortion can be performed to save a woman or girl’s life or to prevent substantial and permanent harm to her physical or mental health.
The law gives doctors some discretion to determine that a fetus after the 21st week of pregnancy is not viable, keeping the restrictions from applying. Also, state statistics that hundreds of abortions were performed after the 21st week of pregnancy, even when the fetus was viable, to protect a woman or girl’s mental health.
The fetal pain bill declares that an abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy can be performed only to save a woman or girl’s life or to prevent substantial and permanent harm to her physical health — with no mental health exception. To justify those rules, the bill declares “there is substantial medical evidence” that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks.
Supporters of the bill contend that’s borne out by numerous, recent studies and the growing use of anesthesia in fetal surgeries.
“We have learned much more about what the unborn child goes through in the womb,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican. “When the children are born prematurely, it is obvious to the eye that, that child reacts to pain.”
But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said it knows of no legitimate evidence showing a fetus can experience pain. The group said certain hormones developing in the final trimester must be present for a fetus to feel pain.
“As a lay person, I am more likely to rely on the expertise of those in the field to determine the latest, valid research,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat who opposed the bill.
Critics also question whether the fetal pain bill is constitutional, based on past U.S. Supreme Court decisions, though the Nebraska law hasn’t yet been challenged.
The second bill contains numerous provisions that have won legislative approval in the past, only to be vetoed by Sebelius or Parkinson. The provisions include more detailed reporting to the state by doctors performing late-term abortions and a provision allowing lawsuits against physicians by patients or family members over potentially illegal procedures.
But the parental consent proposal hasn’t passed previously, and abortion opponents consider it a significant improvement over the current notification law. Critics say the change will block care for girls, particularly those from troubled families, or force them to go to court to obtain a judicial “bypass.”