The Idaho Legislature has passed a bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks based on the nebulous concept of fetal pain, but it isn’t really about that. If it were, lawmakers would have been stopped by the uncertainty surrounding that claim. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says there is “no legitimate scientific information that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain.” Nonetheless, the bill’s sponsor brought in his own experts who said otherwise.
What this bill really represents is an effort to circumvent the standard of fetus viability established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which is generally around 22 to 24 weeks. Resetting the point where states could intervene to 20 weeks would have prevented six abortions in Idaho in 2009. But this isn’t about stopping those rare occurrences; it’s about establishing an earlier entry point so that government can limit a pregnant woman’s right to make a highly personal decision. From there, other strategies can be employed to make abortion even more restrictive or outright illegal.
Idaho is among several states where the fetal-pain strategy is being carried out. The Nebraska Legislature passed such a law last year and the governor signed it. Kansas passed one recently, and it awaits the governor’s signature.
The Idaho attorney general’s office issued an opinion that the Idaho version would not pass constitutional muster, but lawmakers want to spend taxpayer dollars to find out for themselves. This is foolhardy, given the nearly three-quarters of a million dollars the state has spent on futile court battles over previous anti-abortion laws. It is especially conspicuous in a year where more than $90 million in painful budget cuts were approved.
It would appear that no matter how cash-strapped the state is, there is always enough taxpayer money on hand for ideological windmill jousting.
This law would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks in the cases of incest and rape. It subjects the mother and medical professionals to criminal and civil sanctions, and it gives the father and other relatives standing to bring lawsuits. Theoretically, the “father” could be the rapist.
The Legislature ignored the admonition of state Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who is a pediatrician: “To knowingly force someone to carry a baby to term when they know it’s not going to survive I think is cruel.”
A recent Reuters article noted the example of a pregnant Nebraska woman who very much wanted to have a baby but lost most of her amniotic fluids at 22 weeks. She was told her baby would probably die outside the womb from undeveloped lungs and that the uterine walls would slowly crush the fetus. But she was denied her request for labor to be induced because of the fetal-pain law’s 20-week cutoff. Ten days later, she went into labor naturally and the baby died in her arms 15 minutes after delivery.
So the state substituted its judgment for the mother’s and still failed to prevent fetal pain under its definition. Gov. Butch Otter should veto this intrusive, reckless law.