- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The House endorsed a bill Tuesday that would increase abortion regulations based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain after the 20th week of pregnancy.

House Bill 479 brought by Republican Rep. Albert Olszewski of Kalispell would require the use of fetal anesthesia for abortions and other operations after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It also would require that doctors perform tests to determine the gestational age of a fetus before an abortion and mandate reporting the use of fetal anesthesia in abortions.

Doctors who do not comply could be reported to a professional licensing board. The bill originally called for fines and jail time for non-compliance.

The House passed the amended measure by a 56-44 vote on second reading.

Olszewski said that a fetus is capable of feeling pain beginning at 20 weeks based on research studies and added that it hinges on when brain activity begins. “They have a complete response at 20 weeks,” he said of a fetus experiencing pain.

However, researchers have not been able to conclusively determine at what point in development, if at all, a fetus perceives pain, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports legal access to abortion.

Rep. Scott Staffanson, R-Sidney, said that while he hasn’t always felt the way he does now about the start of life, he supports the bill. “I have to believe I’ve always felt that if you’re going to operate on an unborn baby, they should probably have anesthesia, and that should be required,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez of Billings said lawmakers were pushing the bill to appeal to their constituent base, rather than taking a stand for unborn children. “If you really, really believe that we’re protecting unborn children, then why do they suddenly become unholy once they are born, why do we suddenly stop caring about them once they’re born, why don’t we want to address the needs of these human beings once they are born? That’s my challenge to you,” she said.

Republican Rep. Bill Harris of Winnett said he was sticking by comments he made in the House Human Services Committee, in which he compared a doctor’s use of fetal anesthesia to a veterinarian’s use of euthanasia.

“I found that to be an outrageous comment then, almost as outrageous as this bill,” Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said against the bill after Harris spoke in favor of it.

Harris defended himself against Eck, but he reiterated that he believes in what he said March 16.

“To divert this to a different topic gives the appearance of an attempt to protect the right to inflict pain,” Harris said. “And I know all of you well enough to know that’s not true. But that’s what it rises to when you ignore the difference.”

In 2010, only 1.2 percent of induced abortions in the country occurred after the 20th week, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Abortions after 20 weeks are offered at Planned Parenthood locations in Montana, according to Melissa Barcroft, communications coordinator with Planned Parenthood.

The bill will go to the Senate for consideration if it passes a third reading.

___

Associated Press reporter Alison Noon contributed to this story from Helena.


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