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Montana lawmakers weigh bill to increase abortion regulations

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HELENA – Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase abortion regulations based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Republican Rep. Albert Olszewski, of Kalispell, brought the bill and 34 pages of research on fetal pain before the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

"The question of when pain control and anesthesia should be required is pertinent and is timely," he said. "Based on the scientific research accomplished and published over the last three decades, the answer to this question is when the unborn child is 20 weeks gestation or older."

House Bill 479 would require the use of fetal anesthesia for abortions and other surgeries after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It would require that doctors perform tests to determine the gestational age of a fetus before an abortion and mandate that they report their use of fetal anesthesia in abortions. Doctors who do not comply could face fines and jail.

Brittany Salley-Rains, outreach and education coordinator at Blue Mountain Family Clinic in Missoula, said the bill works to erode access to abortion because mandating anesthesia would raise the cost of the procedure. She said it also could force some women to travel farther distances to find access to neo-natal anesthesia services.

"Let's be honest about the intentions of HB479. This bill is masquerading as a compassionate effort to prevent pain and suffering, when in fact it would create it for women in Montana," Salley-Rains said.

Olszewski said the position of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists is that no legitimate scientific information has come out that a fetus experiences pain, although he said they also don't dispute fetal pain science that has come out in the past decade.

Committee members asked a plethora of questions and at one point, it got heated when Republican Rep. Forrest Mandeville of Columbus asked Maggie Moran, executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, if she would consider the heartbeat he heard at 15 weeks at an appointment with his pregnant wife to be nonhuman. His question was objected to by several committee members, and Mandeville apologized for it after the meeting.

In her objection to the bill, Moran said only about 1.5 percent of abortions nationwide take place after 20 weeks of pregnancy, that it's usually done in wanted pregnancies in crisis, and this mandate would further traumatize people in that situation.

About a dozen states have passed similar bans, which depart from the standard of viability established by the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. That decision allowed states to limit abortions in cases where there's a viable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb, generally considered to be between 22 and 24 weeks.

No other laws in Montana regulate the use of anesthesia, Olszewski said.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

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