- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - An anti-abortion bill that would require doctors to do all they can to save potentially viable fetuses is a step closer to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk, after the Montana House on Wednesday advanced the measure that would ban abortions if there is a better-than-half probability a fetus would survive outside a mother’s womb.

The Senate has already passed a similar measure, one of three anti-abortion bills moving through this legislative session.

The House voted 60-40 to move forward on the proposal after a floor debate that got emotional when several legislators spoke of the anguish over difficult pregnancies - their own or those of friends and family.

The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Albert Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, would require physicians to determine if a fetus has a 50 percent or better probability of surviving.

If so, they would need to take the necessary steps, including the use of incubators or other live-saving medical equipment, to attempt to save the life of the baby. Doctors could face criminal charges if they don’t.

Montana already outlaws late-term abortions unless the life of the woman is at risk - but the proposal would further restrict abortion rights legalized by the landmark 1973 U.S Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.

Olszewski’s proposal initially defined “viability” to mean fetuses that have spent at least 24 weeks in a woman’s womb. But his bill later eliminated that definition in favor of greater flexibility in defining what viability means.

“You’re putting a physician in a very difficult position where he has to determine whether or not a fetus is viable. He makes the wrong choice, and he’s a criminal,” said Rep. Jessica Karjala, a Democrat who voted against the bill.

Opponents say the proposal would strip women of their right to abortions and would allow the Legislature to make the most private and difficult decisions on behalf of a woman and her doctor.

While a Bullock’s spokeswoman declined comment on whether he would veto the bill, he is a Democrat and supports women’s rights for abortions.

“Governor Bullock supports a woman’s right to make private health care decisions in consultation with her family, her doctor, and her faith,” said his spokeswoman, Ronja Abel.

The bill’s supporters argue that science and technology has advanced rapidly over the years and that doctors now have a better chance of delivering babies many weeks before nine months of gestation.

While a woman’s choice has been a central focus of the abortion debate, Republican Rep. Seth Berglee sought to put the focus on the obligations of health care providers whose role, he said, is to “ensure the survival” of a child.

“What about the health care professional that believe that a child pass the age of viability is actually a child?” he asked. “”You’re putting health care providers in a moral quandary.”

The measure is one of three anti-abortion bills moving through the current legislative session. Another bill seeks a referendum to ask voters to grant state constitutional rights to a woman’s fertilized egg at the moment of conception. The third bill would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Supports say fetuses in that stage of development can feel pain, although there is scientific uncertainty over that assertion.

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