Bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks introduced


Rally for Pro-Life legislation on the east steps of Legislative Hall on Tuesday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Republican lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy although the measure is highly unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Senate Bill 205 would prohibit abortion, with one exception, when the fetus is at least 20 weeks old, a point at which some believe a unborn child can feel pain.

The measure would allow a post-20-week abortion if a doctor determines a woman could suffer serious injury or death if she gives birth. Should the woman’s health be at risk, a doctor would be instructed to, if possible, terminate the pregnancy in a way that could allow the fetus to survive outside the womb.

The state currently allows abortion up to viability, defined as “the point in a pregnancy when, in a physician’s good faith medical judgment based on the factors of a patient’s case, there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.”

Almost 2,600 abortions were conducted in Delaware in 2013, according to the Division of Public Health.

Under the bill, performing an illegal abortion would be a felony, although the proposal does not specify a specific class of felony. There would be no penalty for a woman who undergoes an unlawful abortion.

Abortion is a highly charged issue, engendering strong passions from both supporters and opponents. That was on display Tuesday, with more than 100 people gathered outside Legislative Hall for a news conference announcing the bill. Among the attendees were eight women holding small dolls the size of 20-week-old fetuses, capable of just about fitting into one’s hands, as an illustration of why they see abortion as morally wrong.

“This legislation is a battle for the soul of our state,” Rep. Tim Dukes, a Laurel Republican, said.

The measure is known as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and modeled after a federal bill of the same name.

Supporters called abortion as a “barbaric” act, describing in detail different methods for terminating fetuses.

According to the bill, a fetus can begin feeling pain less than five months after conception.

“It is hard to imagine a more gruesome way to die,” Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the crowd. “As was said before, and I want to say again, if veterinarians ripped apart living dogs or cats to kill them in the same way that living human unborn children are ripped apart … the outcry would be deafening.”

There is dispute about when a fetus can first experience pain, however. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in January said a bill in the U.S. Senate that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks “ignores scientific evidence regarding fetal inability to experience pain at that gestational age.” That measure failed to gain the needed supermajority.

Seventeen states specifically forbid abortion after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization focused on reproductive rights.

The General Assembly last year passed a measure codifying abortion law, striking portions of the Delaware Code that criminalized abortion but were superseded by the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. Just two Democrats voted against the bill, while only one Republican supported it.

Any vote on Senate Bill 205 figures to fall almost completely along party lines, although the main sponsor, Sen. Bryant Richardson, a Laurel Republican, said he hopes Democrats will support it after reading the facts.

But Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat who sponsored the legislation codifying abortion rights last year, said Senate Bill 205 unreasonably limits an important right and goes against what the majority of Delawareans want.

“I think when it comes to women’s reproductive health and reproductive choices, our laws and policies should be based on medical science and the Constitution,” he said, noting he is unaware of any evidence fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.

The summary of Senate Bill 205 states the legislation “is not asking the Supreme Court to overturn or replace the holding in Roe v. Wade,” but some pro-choice individuals fear 20-week bans and related proposals are just steps toward outlawing abortion entirely. Many Republican members of the General Assembly strongly oppose any form of abortion, and Sen. Richardson asked the crowd Tuesday if it could “understand that the United States Supreme Court sometimes makes mistakes,” receiving cheers in response.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 65 percent of Republicans say abortion should be mostly or completely illegal, while 75 percent of Democrats believe it should be legal in most or all circumstances.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. John Carney declined to comment on the legislation. The governor did sign the abortion bill last year and voted against the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015.

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