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Expert: State’s 20-week abortion ban bill could backfire

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — As the Wisconsin Legislature’s health committees prepare to take up a fast-tracked bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, an expert says the measure could prompt more early terminations.

Under the bill, which is slated for a joint public hearing Tuesday, doctors who perform an abortion after 20 weeks in non-emergency situations could be charged with a felony and subject to up to $10,000 in fines or 3½ years in prison.

As written, it doesn’t provide an exception for pregnancies due to rape or incest. The bill also requires that physicians performing abortions in situations in which the mother’s life is in danger do so in a way most likely to ensure the child’s survival.

Dr. Steven Leuthner, professor of pediatrics and bioethics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said some diagnoses of life-limiting conditions aren’t completely reliable before the 20-week mark. Faced with a stricter timeline to legally obtain an abortion, more women may choose to end a pregnancy that could have been carried to term instead of obtaining additional fetus monitoring and physician counseling, he said.

“I think it could backfire and lead to more terminations,” Leuthner said, adding that women in rural areas might have trouble accessing fetal screening and specialists before 20 weeks. “There might be more abortions due to worse counseling.”

Meanwhile, other conditions may not present symptoms before the 20-week mark, Leuthner said, which would mean women would have to carry the baby to term.

“That’s a very big psychological burden,” Leuthner said. “Simply living day to day with a baby potentially dying inside them, that’s very psychologically damaging.”

Julaine Appling, president of the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action, said concerns similar to Leuthner’s haven’t been borne out in states that passed similar measures.

“It’s not an argument I’ve heard that has legs to stand on,” Appling said. “I just don’t see anything that corroborates his position.”

Ten states have passed 20-week bans, according to the reproductive health think-tank Guttmacher Institute, which depart from the 22-24 week standard of a fetus’ viability outside the womb established by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

According to the most recent information from the state Department of Health Services, roughly 1 percent of abortions in Wisconsin in 2013 occurred after the 20-week mark — 89 of nearly 6,500 abortions performed that year.

The bill’s co-authors Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Senate President Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, say the bill is aimed at reducing pain in unborn children. They didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

While some doctors contend fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says evidence suggests that’s not possible until the third trimester begins at 27 weeks.

Gov. Scott Walker said Monday he’ll sign the bill whether or not it has provisions for pregnancies conceived from rape and incest.

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