Emotions flared in the Idaho Legislature Friday as the first major abortion law in eight years was introduced and talk turned to life, God, medicine and politics.
Rep. Dan Mader, R-Genesee, presented legislation from Right to Life of Idaho; it would ban “partial-birth” abortion at any stage of pregnancy unless the mother otherwise would die.
“This particular procedure denies the humanity of a child that for all practical purposes has been born,” Mader told the House State Affairs Committee.
But committee member Ruby Stone, R-Boise, countered, “Since we have never had a partial-birth abortion in Idaho, why do you feel it’s necessary? … This is nothing more than more abuse to my gender. I don’t believe that God has given me special dispensation to dictate to another woman what she can do with her body.”
Stone, a six-term legislator, said, “It’s always been the Republican Party’s policy to stay out of our personal lives, and what is more personal than this bill?”
Stone left the room before the committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, and was in tears afterward. A full hearing will be scheduled in the committee in the coming weeks.
According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, there is no record of the late-term abortion procedure ever having been performed in Idaho.
A breakdown of abortions performed in 1996 by technique shows that 1,002 of the 1,022 abortions were done by a vacuum technique commonly used early in pregnancy. All but one of those procedures occurred before 20 weeks.
The technique targeted by the proposed legislation involves pulling the fetus partway into the birth canal, then draining the contents of the skull to allow full removal.
That procedure typically is performed late in the pregnancy, when the size of the fetus’ head and the mother’s health may preclude delivery by other means.
Idaho statistics show 10 abortions performed by other specific techniques in 1996, including hysterectomy.
Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, a physician, said he’s never heard of the controversial technique being used in Idaho.
Mader said, “You always get into that debate, ‘Should we wait until it does happen here and then pass a ban?’ We ought to do this before one of these children has to go through or not go through this procedure.”
He added, “I think there’s a strong possibility that the procedure has been done here. … There is some indication that it’s kind of becoming an abortion procedure of choice, because it’s quicker.”
Dennis Mansfield, head of the Idaho Family Forum, said after the committee vote, “If it’s not unanimous, then those who would vote against the ban, I think they need to re-examine the value of life.”
Jen Ray of the Idaho Women’s Network disagreed. “I think there are several factors that make this piece of legislation highly questionable. It’s legislators playing doctor with women’s lives.”
A legal opinion from Idaho Attorney General Al Lance this week said similar legislation in other states has been overturned by courts as unconstitutional. Lance said Idaho was joining other states in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on an Ohio case, to get a definitive answer.
The opinion said courts have overturned such laws “primarily on the ground that a woman cannot be required to use a different and potentially riskier procedure.”
Kerry Uhlenkott of Grangeville, legislative coordinator for Right to Life of Idaho, said her group believes its legislation would be upheld in a court test, despite the Attorney General’s opinion.
“In the best interest of the women and children in Idaho, it’s a procedure that needs to be prohibited,” she said. “It’s four-fifths infanticide.”
Uhlenkott said her group is going after this particular abortion procedure because people tend to object to it. The group is not targeting the similar dilation and evacuation procedure, which takes place inside the womb at the same stages of pregnancy.
“This is our focus right now,” she said. “In the future, who knows? … We want to pass protective language that would protect unborn children at all stages in pregnancy.”
Ray said the technique, and the name “partial-birth abortion,” are being used to fan emotions in the abortion debate. “That language was never used until two years ago,” she said. “It is not a medically defined term.”
She added, “I thought I heard a couple of times (in the committee) the life of a fetus being equated with the life of a woman as equal. The life of a woman matters.”
The “partial-birth” ban is the first of at least three pieces of abortion legislation to be considered in the committee.
Riggs said he’d have to study the abortion legislation line by line before he could decide whether to support it.
“In Idaho, I don’t think it’s happening,” he said. “The procedure would be reserved for when the mother’s life is absolutely in danger and you must act now, which is basically a rare occurrence.”
But he added, “I’m not sure this procedure is needed, because there are other approaches that are available.”
Riggs was surprised to see that the legislation made no distinction between procedures performed on a fetus that is viable, or can live on its own, and one that is not.
But, he said, “If this procedure is not even happening in Idaho, then you can support it or oppose it and it’s not going to make any difference.”