Texas abortion regulations, new and old, tout suspect science

“While there are studies that have found an increased risk in developing breast cancer after an induced abortion, some studies have found no overall risk,” reads page 17 of “A Woman's Right to Know,” a pamphlet the State of Texas mandates doctors give to every woman seeking an abortion. “There is agreement that this issue needs further study.”

That's not true, and it wasn't true back in 2003 when state lawmakers passed the “Woman's Right to Know” bill over the objections of the National Cancer Institute, which continues to say there's no abortion-breast cancer link.

“I assume there was some basis for us putting this there in the first place,” said state Rep. Rene Olivera (D-Brownsville) in an April 10 hours-long House State Affairs Committee hearing considering House Bill 2945, which would repeal the scientifically-bogus language. “I think it was based more on ideology than science,” said Rep. Sarah Davis, a pro-life breast cancer survivor and the GOP lawmaker that filed the bill. “This bill is not about abortion,” she said. “It's about giving scientifically accurate information … I would ask that we return to reality in 2013.”

Later that day, after lawmakers left Davis' bill pending in committee, the Lege again put science in its crosshairs, considering Rep. Jodie Laubenberg's (R-Parker) proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

One of Gov. Rick Perry's self-professed priorities for the session, House Bill 2364, the so-called “fetal pain” bill, would ban abortions after 20 weeks on the notion that fetuses can feel pain 20 weeks after conception. Like the breast cancer-abortion warning, it's an argument based on shaky science, opponents insist.

From the get-go, Rep. Jessica Farrar* argued with Laubenberg, who giggled repeatedly  when talk turned to menstrual cycles, saying things like, “Sorry guys … I'm talking very delicately around the men.”

Pro-life advocates have championed similar bills in at least 10 other states since 2010, on the presumption that 20-week fetuses can feel pain. Last month, Idaho's 20-week ban was struck down by a federal judge, and court challenges to similar laws in Georgia and Arizona are pending.

That fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks is anything but established science. Farrar made numerous references to a 2005 study by the The Journal of the American Medical Association, which discredits the fetal-pain theory. According to that JAMA article, nerves aren't sufficiently developed to actually register pain until well into the third trimester. One 2011 study from University College London said fetuses begin to feel pain around a woman's 35th week of pregnancy.

Still, many pro-life doctors testified in favor of Laubenberg's bill — sounding as if they lifted talking points sounded from a website called Doctors on Fetal Pain, where someone has gathered supposed evidence to defend the fetal-pain argument (it's not clear who runs the website; an email to the website administrator wasn't acknowledged or returned).

Ingrid Skop, an OB-GYN in San Antonio, said she's “seen fetuses withdraw their limbs when they encounter the amniotic needle.” Arizona pediatrician Paul Liu testified at the request of Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), who promoted fetal-pain science in a YouTube video Texas Right to Life put out last week. Liu said that doctors will often administer anesthesia to a fetus during operations that take place in pregnancy; proof, he says, that a fetus feels pain.

In the end, Laubenberg questioned whether JAMA was reliable, and told Farrar, “I will very gladly place my studies against your studies.” The list of studies Laubenberg provided the Current mirrors list taken from the Doctors on Fetal Pain website.

Under Laubenberg's bill, any doctor who induces, or attempts to induce, an abortion after 20 weeks would lose their license. For women seeking an abortion, at least two doctors would have to determine the age of the fetus, and the physician performing the abortion must provide “the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive.”

Activists with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas say the law would be unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which ruled that abortions prior to fetal viability cannot be restricted — fetal viability is generally considered to be around 24 weeks, a full month after the bill's cut-off date.

The only exception written into Laubenberg's bill is if a woman is in danger of death or physical impairment if she doesn't get an abortion. As Farrar pointed out, there'd be no exception if a woman, later in her pregnancy, is diagnosed with cancer and presented with the choice to either risk her own health by rejecting cancer treatments, or risk the fetus's health by seeking treatment. “I think she should be the one who is able to make that choice,” Farrar said. “What actually constitutes acceptable risk? Does she have to die, or just risk death?”

Critics of the bill say abortions after 20 weeks are rare — of the 77,592 abortions performed in Texas  in 2010, just 420 were done after 20 weeks — and say those abortions are usually the result of some serious medical issue. Obstetrician Christina Sebestyen argued that many serious congenital anomalies aren't even detectable prior to 20 weeks, and that Laubenberg's bill would leave those women with no options. It's for that reason the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has opposed fetal pain bills filed across the country.

Carole Metcalf testified in front of lawmakers, saying she learned during an ultrasound at 20 weeks her daughter was terminally ill. “Knowing that your daughter is dying is heartbreaking,” she told lawmakers. Metcalf and her husband had already named the girl Amber when they decided to end the pregnancy. Had Laubenberg's bill been signed into law, Metcalf would not have had that choice.

In committee, Laubenberg insisted that carrying terminally ill children to term “brings closure for that woman.”

Lawmakers last week left the fetal-pain bill pending in committee.

*We originally reported Rep. Farrar was famous for waving a sonogram at lawmakers during floor debate in the 2011 session. It was her colleague, Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. We regret the error.

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