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Full Senate to debate 20-week limit on abortions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation to ban abortions of fetuses after 20 weeks gestation advanced to the Senate floor Thursday evening, after an emotional debate in Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Committee members approved a strike-and-insert amendment that makes minor changes in the bill (HB4588), primarily clarifying definitions when post-20 week abortions could be performed, for medical emergencies that would pose risk of death or substantial physical impairment and when the fetus is not medically viable.

Before the vote, the committee heard from two OB-GYNs who expressed serious concerns with the bill, Dr. Stephen Bush of Charleston and Dr. Lori Tucker of Princeton, sister of Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas.

"I am very much pro-life," Lori Tucker told the committee. "It is very difficult for me sometimes to talk to my patients about abortion, but I know it is sometimes the medically right thing to do."

Both physicians said the legislation would put them in a quandary in dealing with patients who have medical complications or are determined to have non-viable fetuses in the window from 20 weeks to 24 weeks, the earliest point of viability.

The bill makes it a misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $4,000 to perform an abortion after 20 weeks if it is not established that it was necessary for the woman's life or health, or because the fetus was not viable.

"This will eliminate our ability to care for our patients," Bush said.

"I'm asking for you to consider this from a physician's standpoint," Tucker told the committee. She said the bill would not allow state physicians to provide medical standards of care to patients with complications in the 20- to 24-week window.

Jon Carey, legislative coordinator for West Virginians for Life, said the bill is based on model legislation from the national Right to Life organization to shift the abortion debate from viability to the point at which fetuses can feel pain.

"We're talking about the baby," he said. "We're not talking about viability. We're talking about pain."

Carey also disputed statements by Judiciary Committee counsel that the legislation is unconstitutional. He said 10 states have adopted similar legislation, and courts in only three of those states have ruled it unconstitutional.

On three occasions, Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, called for the bill's proponents to have a lawyer come forward to defend the bill's constitutionality. None did.

The bill will be on amendment stage on the Senate floor Friday, and differences between the House and Senate versions would have to be worked out before the end of the regular session, at midnight Saturday.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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