'Dismemberment' abortion ban bill advances

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West Virginia lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday that would ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure spotlighted in a series of videos that targeted Planned Parenthood last year.

The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee passed the bill (SB 10) that outlaws so-called “dismemberment abortions,” after removing a provision that would have subjected doctors to civil and criminal penalties.

“It's a live baby, and you're literally pulling its limbs off,” said Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur.

A Huntington doctor told lawmakers that the dilation and evacuation procedure was the safest way to terminate a pregnancy during the second trimester.

“If this bill passes, it will really interfere with the decision-making of physicians and patients,” said Dr. David Jude, an obstetrician. “It would be best to leave the decision to the physician and patient, rather than some legislative office.”

Republican legislators have modeled West Virginia's bill after similar abortion restriction laws in Oklahoma and Kansas. Courts have blocked those bans from taking effect in those states.

In hopes of avoiding a court challenge here, Senate health committee members passed a revised version of the bill Thursday.

Among the changes, second-trimester dilation and evacuation procedures are illegal unless the doctor first “creates demise or death” of the fetus. The ban also would not apply to emergency procedures.

“This only applies to elective procedures,” said Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, who heads the committee. “We took an extra, precautionary step that we're not eliminating the procedure, but only under certain circumstances. The procedure is only outlawed if the baby's life isn't first terminated.”

Under the initial bill, West Virginia doctors faced a $10,000 fine and two years in prison if they performed the most common procedure for abortions after 12 weeks. The health committee scratched that penalty. The amended bill says doctors that violate the law would be subject to disciplinary action by medical boards.

“You're still putting our medical licenses at risk,” Jude said.

Abortion rights advocates say the legislation would put women's lives in danger, forcing them to undergo riskier procedures or forgo abortions. The bill's critics also argue the ban is unconstitutional because it interferes with private medical decisions.

Doctors use the dilation and evacuation procedure in about 95 percent of second-trimester abortions. It is considered the safest method for the second trimester.

“I think any other procedure would put the mother's health at risk,” said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a Madison doctor.

The West Virginia bill uses language provided by the Washington, D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee. The legislation bans doctors from using forceps, clamps, scissors or similar instruments on a live fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces.

The bill's supporters say they want to stop a “gruesome” abortion practice that was the subject of undercover videos that targeted Planned Parenthood. The videos, which purported to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the illegal sale of baby parts, sparked outrage among anti-abortion activists.

Last month, Planned Parenthood sued the makers of the videos, a group called the Center for Medical Progress. The lawsuit alleges the videos were illegally recorded and deceptively edited — and part of a “smear campaign” against Planned Parenthood.

Two weeks ago, a Houston grand jury indicted two people who shot and edited the undercover videos. The pair was charged with governmental record-tampering for making fake driver's licenses that were presented at a meeting with Planned Parenthood officials in April.

Last year, a law prohibiting abortions 20 weeks after conception took effect in West Virginia, even though Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the ban over concerns that a court would strike it down. The Republican-controlled Legislature overrode the governor's veto in March. The 20-week abortion ban is based on the disputed theory that a fetus can feel pain at that point.

Ferns expects this year's abortion restriction bill to sail through the Senate. The legislation next goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I think there will be little opposition to the bill as it currently stands,” he said.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, or follow him on Twitter @EricEyre.

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