Missouri lawmakers pass limits on late-term abortions

Thursday, May 12, 2011 | 4:04 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Although already rare in Missouri, women seeking late-term abortions would face even more restrictions under legislation given final approval Thursday by state lawmakers who have been attempting for decades to gradually make it more difficult for abortions to occur.

The legislation sent to the governor would remove a general exception for a woman's health from an existing law against aborting viable fetuses. Instead, it would allow such abortions only when a woman's life is endangered or the pregnancy poses a serious risk of a permanent physical impairment.

Doctors who abort a viable fetus when a woman does not qualify for an exception could face prison sentences of up to seven years, fines up to $50,000 and the loss of their medical licenses. Hospitals and surgical centers allowing such abortions also could lose their state licenses.

But those penalties may never come into play. The state Health Department said just 63 of the 6,881 abortions recorded in 2009 in Missouri were on fetuses at least 21 weeks old and none were reported as being viable.

Some abortion opponents question if those statistics are true.

"The Department of Health can only provide the information they're receiving. How accurate is that? And is there the oversight of a second physician to determine if the child is viable or not?" said Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri.

State law already requires a second physician to be present for abortions of viable fetuses. The legislation would require that a second physician also concur the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the woman or prevent permanent harm to one of her major bodily functions.

Abortion-rights supporters objected to repealing the general health exception from Missouri's current ban on aborting viable fetuses — a provision that has been in state law since 1974.

"It has always been part of the calculation of a woman's health — mental, emotional, psychological health, that all counts — not just if you continue the pregnancy your kidneys are going to shut down," said Pamela Sumners, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. "The General Assembly is just inserting its brooding omnipresence into the emergency room."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court established a woman's right to abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Missouri has enacted numerous laws imposing requirements or restrictions on abortion providers. The 2011 legislation, by comparison, is relatively minor.

"It's tweaking what's already in the law," Lee said.

The legislation passed the Senate with little discussion, reflecting a compromise among its sponsor, Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer of Dexter, and a vocal abortion-rights supporter, Democratic Sen. Jolie Justus of Kansas City. Among other things, Mayer agreed not to amend the state's definition of viability.

But the rhetoric was intense in the Missouri House.

House Majority Leader Tim Jones said the state has a paramount interest in protecting life.

"This question is whether or not you support the barbaric practice of ripping a child from a mother's womb in the late term and slaughtering that infant," said Jones, R-Eureka, a sponsor of the legislation.

Assistant House Minority Leader Tishaura Jones told colleagues during debate that the father of her son had urged her to get an abortion, but she did not. Jones said she was "pro-life" for herself but "pro-choice" for everyone else.

"The state needs to get out of my belly, out of my uterus, because that's my decision between me, my God and my doctors," said Jones, D-St. Louis.

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