JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A panel of Missouri lawmakers endorsed a bill Wednesday that would ban abortions of viable fetuses after the 20th week of pregnancy unless the abortion was necessary to save the life or physical health of the mother.
The House Health Care Policy Committee voted 9-1 to pass the bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka.
Jones' proposal would require doctors to determine whether a fetus older than 20 weeks would be viable outside of the mother's womb using tests of the fetus' gestational age, weight and lung function. Abortions at that stage of a pregnancy make up only a small percentage of the procedures in Missouri, according to government statistics.
The bill changes the definition of viability to include life that can be "sustained" outside of the womb with or without life support instead of life that can be "continued indefinitely."
If the fetus is found to be unviable, a doctor would have to report to the state why the child was unviable after performing the abortion. For viable fetuses, a second doctor would have to confirm that the abortion is necessary to save the mother's life or major bodily function before performing the abortion.
Pamela Sumners, the executive director of the pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, said her group opposes the bill, especially the requirement for a second doctor to approve of an abortion.
"I just don't know why legislators would presume to second-guess the opinion of a licensed and certified physician," Sumners said.
Under the proposal, an abortion of a viable fetus could only be performed if the woman's life were endangered by a physical disorder, illness or injury or if continuing the pregnancy would permanently impair one of her major bodily functions.
Those exceptions do not appear to include the mother's mental health.
Samuel Lee, founder of the anti-abortion rights group Campaign Life Missouri, said that change is welcomed by pro-life groups.
"What we've had in Missouri and other states is abortions being performed for no reason," he said. "The law in Missouri needs to reflect what health really means."
Sumners countered, saying the change was a departure from legal precedents dating back to the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade.
"Psychological and emotional health have always been factors that have to be considered and provided for by the legislature," Sumners said.
The bill would make it a felony for a doctor to violate any of its provisions. Doctors would face at least a year in prison and a possible three-year suspension of their medical license.
Paula Gianino, president of the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said abortions performed after 20 weeks are rare and are usually done in cases of emergency or when there has been a problem with the pregnancy.
Vital statistics from the Department of Health and Senior Services show that fewer than 5 percent of the more than 10,800 abortions performed statewide in 2009 involved fetuses over 17 weeks of gestational age. Of those 469 that did, 77 were performed after the fetus was older than 21 weeks. The vital statistics did not specify how many of those fetuses were viable.
Gianino said doctors are wary of performing abortions so late because the procedure is more complicated. She said the reporting requirements and penalties in Jones' bill could make doctors hesitant in emergencies, potentially endangering patients.
"Physicians are trying to make a decision in a very, very difficult circumstance," she said. "For elected officials to insert themselves in the middle of the most dire emergency for a woman is really unconscionable."
If a doctor violated one of those provisions, the hospital or clinic where they performed the abortion could also lose its state license.
Sumners said that could prevent other patients from getting needed medications or treatments.
Lee argued that the state has to give hospitals an incentive to supervise their doctors to prevent violations. He said lawmakers likely wanted to prevent scenarios similar to a recent case in Philadelphia, where an abortion doctor is accused of killing babies that were born alive in his clinic.
"That's an additional enforcement mechanism," Lee said. "There's no question that there are some doctors who've done abortions unethically and this would give the clinic or hospital an obligation to supervise what their doctors are doing."
The bill now goes before the full House. A similar Senate bill is awaiting a committee hearing.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)