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Government, Politics & Issues

House, Senate pass anti-abortion bills with veto-proof majorities

This article first appered in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2011 - Both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly focused on abortion and contraception this morning, with the Senate passing a bill to restrict abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy while the state House approved a measure to put more restrictions on the abortion drug RU-486.

The House bill also allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraception pill known as "Plan B."

Both bills also passed by veto-proof majorities -- a strong indication that both may land on the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who backs abortion rights but generally has played down the issue.

Abortion opponents were particularly pleased with the Senate's action, by 27-5 vote, which comes weeks after the Missouri House voted 119-38 to approve a similar measure restricting abortions after 20 weeks.

The bill would make it a felony to perform an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, unless the woman's life is endangered, the woman risks permanent damage to a major bodily function because of the pregnancy, or the fetus is non-viable. Two unaffiliated physicians would have to make the determinations.

The House version requires the doctors to be from different hospitals although the Senate bill does not. The Senate's changes were made to end a filibuster by some Democratic legislators.

Former St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth, a social conservative who heads the Missouri Family Policy Council, said his group initiated the legislation.

"The cavalier performance of late-term abortions is the most bestial and cruel form of inhumanity against the human person," Ortwerth said. "This bill sends a message to the abortion industry in Missouri: 'Don't mess with the lives and the future of viable unborn children in our state.' "

But an official with Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri said that the bill imposes improper restrictions on families already suffering. "In many cases, these are wanted pregnancies that have gone terribly wrong,'' said Planned Parenthood vice president Alison Gee. "This bill puts politics smack in the middle of it."

The latest Missouri statistics show that fewer than 1 percent of the abortions performed in the state involve fetuses of more than 20 weeks. In 2009, there were 63 such abortions out of 6,881 overall.

Planned Parenthood and others also have noted that pregnancy tests for certain fetal deformities, illnesses or anomalies -- such as Down Syndrome -- often cannot be performed until 16-20 weeks. The bill, if it becomes law, could put physicians and patients in such situations afoul of the 20-week restriction.

The state Senate and the House are expected to resolve the slight differences between their two versions of the 20-week bill and send the measure onto Nixon's desk. The governor and his staff generally have declined to comment on most bills, including this one.

It's now up to the Senate to decide when or if to take up the separate bill passed today by the House, which imposes more restrictions on the use of RU-486, a non-surgicial combination of drugs to induce abortion, and which gives pharmacies and their staffs the right to refuse fill prescriptions for an emergency contraceptive known as "Plan B."

Under the House bill, approved by a vote of 118-38, women who use RU-486 would no longer be allowed to take the second dose at home. A physician would have to administer it in the office. The bill also would change current law so that a physician would have to see the woman 24 hours before administering the first dose; now, that initial visit can be with a health-care professional who is not a doctor although a physician still needs to administer the first dose.

The House bill makes it a class C felony (imprisonment for up to seven years or a fine up to $5,000) for non-physicians to prescribe or administer RU-486 or any other drug intended to induce an abortion.

Sam Lee with Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion lobbying group, said that the restrictions were to protect the woman. Gee said the added steps regarding RU-486 could actually lead to more delays and complications because women would have to travel to a doctor's office between the two doses of the drugs to induce abortion.

As for Plan B, the House discussion included debate over whether causes an early abortion. The drug prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall. Planned Parenthood and its physicians say that Plan B is a contraceptive, and that it will not harm a fetus already implanted in a woman's womb.

Abortion opponents say that pharmacies should not be required to fill prescriptions for Plan B. Gee noted that Missouri pharmacies already are not required to stock the drug. The bill passed Thursday will allow pharmacies to decide which women with prescriptions may obtain the drug, she said.

Lee said that both measures approved today highlight the clout that abortion opponents have in the General Assembly. "We have more votes in the House and Senate than we have ever had,'' he said.

"It's clear that the legislature does want to deal with abortion,'' Lee continued. "We're pleased that two different bills dealing with pro-life issues have a shot of getting passed."

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