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Bill expands abortion-consent regulations

Friday, May 14, 2010 | 12:41 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A woman wanting an abortion in Missouri must be given the chance to view an ultrasound image and listen to the heartbeat of her fetus under legislation given final approval Friday to expand the state's 24-hour consent law.

The bill will provide a political test for Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat in his second year of office who has not yet had to decide whether to sign an abortion bill.

The House passed the bill 114-39 as one of its first actions on the final day of Missouri's annual legislative session. The bill passed the Senate 26-5 in April after abortion-rights supporters deemed it enough of a compromise not to filibuster. The House and Senate vote totals both exceeded the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto.

"Like all legislation that goes to the governor, it will receive a thorough and comprehensive review," said Nixon spokesman Scott Holste.

As attorney general for 16 years, Nixon's duties included defending Missouri's restrictive abortion laws against legal challenges. As a gubernatorial candidate, Nixon said he didn't see the need for any changes to Missouri's abortion laws, but he declined to say whether he would veto bills containing additional restrictions.

The NARAL-Pro-Choice America Foundation rates Missouri's existing laws as the fourth most restrictive on "women's reproductive rights," behind only Louisiana, North Dakota and Mississippi. But the measure passed Friday does not reach as far as legislation passed this year in some other states.

A new Oklahoma law — which is temporarily suspended because of a court challenge — requires an abortion provider not only to offer an ultrasound but to actually conduct one and show it to the woman (though she could look away).

A bill passed in Florida would require an abortion provider to conduct an ultrasound on a woman unless there are police, court or medical records indicating she is seeking the abortion because of rape, incest, domestic violence or endangerment of health. The Florida measure allows a woman to decline to view the ultrasound.

Missouri already has a law requiring a woman to be told of the physical and psychological risks at least 24 hours before undergoing an abortion. The new legislation requires that consultation to occur in person instead of over the phone and mandates that women receive a description of the "anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child."

Abortion providers would also be required to supply a state-produced brochure stating that "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."

The intent is to persuade women entering abortion clinics to change their minds, said House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, who handled the bill.

"If women have all the information about the abortion procedure, it's my belief that many, many women will choose not to have an abortion," said Pratt, R-Blue Springs.

About 7,400 abortions were performed in Missouri in 2008 at nine clinics or hospitals, according to the latest annual figures available from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. That's up slightly from the previous year but barely one-third of the number that were performed about 25 years ago. Those figures do not include Missourians who get abortions at clinics in neighboring states.

Requiring an in-person consultation could force women traveling to clinics to stay overnight at a hotel and take more time off work or school, said Alison Gee, of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. She said Planned Parenthood clinics already offer ultrasounds, though not always 24 hours in advance of abortions.

Gee described the bill's requirements on informational materials as "state-mandated ideology — biased information."

Rep. Beth Low, D-Kansas City, added: "This bill is yet another intrusive government effort to place itself between physician and patient."

Planned Parenthood officials have declined to say whether they would challenge the legislation in court. But supporters expressed confidence that the measure would be upheld.

Nineteen states already require that women receive either an ultrasound or information about how they can do so before abortions are performed, according to Americans United for Life.

"This legislation is about as ironclad as it can get," said Joe Ortwerth, executive director of the Missouri Family Policy Council.


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