- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A last-minute change to an abortion bill by state senators would ban abortion after 18 weeks of pregnancy, not 20.

House Bill 1400 originally calculated a pregnancy as beginning when an embryo implants itself in a woman’s uterus. But the version that passed the Senate unanimously Tuesday changed that to calculate a pregnancy from when a woman’s last menstrual period ended.

Because of a clause inserted into the bill, it’s guaranteed to go to a House-Senate conference before it could become law.

The ban cites research that has divided the medical community by suggesting a fetus can feel pain at about 20 weeks. Exceptions to the ban would be made to prevent permanent physical damage or death of a pregnant woman, or in cases of severe fetal abnormalities.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, initially told The Associated Press that the change was meant to bring the bill into line with laws in other states, especially Louisiana and Texas. Mississippi, like those two states, is part of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. At least 13 states have enacted so-called fetal-pain laws according to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches abortion laws.

A review of laws in Louisiana and Texas by the AP found Mississippi’s change actually moves away from the language in those states’ bills, and toward wording used in an Arizona bill that was found unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit. The appeals court ruled that the Arizona law violates a woman’s constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. Viability of a fetus is generally considered to start at 24 weeks.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Arizona case in January, upholding the Ninth Circuit.

“Gestational age is actually two weeks earlier than post-conception age,” said Felicia Brown-Williams, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Southeast. Brown-Williams called the Mississippi proposal unconstitutional because of the Arizona precedent.

The new language was unveiled to senators Tuesday as they debated the bill and was not uploaded in advance into the Legislature’s computer system. It is relatively unusual for a bill to undergo a complete overhaul before a full chamber in Mississippi without new wording being adopted by a committee first.

Fillingane said the new language was supplied to lawmakers Friday after anti-abortion groups agreed on it. That was after last week’s deadline for a committee to act.

Fillingane said anti-abortion groups had expressed concerns that the previous language could allow abortions past 20 weeks, using the post-conception age definition. He said he didn’t intend to vary from other states and would examine the issue if the House and Senate confer.

But, Fillingane also said he would welcome a court challenge to the bill by abortion supporters, expressing confidence that the more conservative Fifth Circuit might rule that an earlier ban is constitutional.

“That would be great for our side if they were to do that,” Fillingane said.

Such a divergence from another federal appeals court would almost certainly lead to the Supreme Court taking up the case.

Little of those issues were evident from Tuesday’s debate, which mainly centered on the Senate’s rejection of an amendment proposed by Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, to create an exemption for pregnancies that occur through rape or incest.

Simmons argued that some women might not realize they were pregnant until after 20 weeks.

“We don’t want to further victimize” the mother, Simmons said.

Opponents disputed that claim. “Don’t you think that person would realize they’ve been raped in 20 weeks?” asked Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp.

Other opponents said they believed terminating pregnancies that occurred through rape or incest, like all abortions, is wrong.

“The baby is a victim of the crime. He didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Sen. Philip Gandy, R-Waynesboro. “To witness a late-term abortion is one of the most brutal forms of murder allowed in America.”

Health Department statistics show 2,176 abortions in Mississippi in 2012. Two were reported at 21 weeks or later, and 382 were listed as unknown gestational age.

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Online: House Bill 1400: http://bit.ly/1kJTycK

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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