Iowa Lawmakers Send Fetal Pain Abortion Ban to Senate Floor

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 3, 2011   |   1:15PM   |   Des Moines, IA

Iowa state senators successfully obtained enough signatures to get a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the concept of fetal pain to the Senate floor.

The measure had been stuck in committee after the state House passed the bill in April. The only method lawmakers had over getting the legislation to the floor for a debate and vote was a rarely-used discharge petition but 26 senators — 24 Republicans and Democrats Tom Hancock of Epworth and Joe Seng of Davenport signed the petition to force the bill out of the Government Oversight Committee, where it had been considered essentially dead for the session.

The petition was submitted to Secretary of the Senate Michael Marshall and he said it is the first time since 1998 that he has received one.

Despite the efforts by the senators, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Democrat from Council Bluffs, has the final say about whether the measure gets a debate and vote.

In a statement this morning, Gronstal said he is opposed to Nebraska-based late-term abortion practitioner Leroy Carhart following through on plans to open a new abortion business in Council Bluffs after a similar Nebraska bill essentially drove part of his abortion business out of the state. Carhart now does late abortions in Maryland at an abortion center employing him there, but he wants to move his Omaha area abortion business to Iowa as well.

The statement Gronstal released this morning had him saying he supports keeping late abortions legal but opposes Carhart building an abortion business in his back yard.

“I share Mayor Tom Hanahan’s opposition to making Council Bluffs the home for a new clinic that specializes in late-term abortions. I support efforts in my hometown to keep Dr. Carhart out of Council Bluffs,” he said. “Making a decision about what to do at that point is a gut wrenching decision that should be made by a woman, her family and her doctor. I believe that a woman has a right to make her own personal, private decision about abortion without the interference of politicians.”

The statement did not appear to shed any light on the future of House File 657, which has the support of Gov. Terry Branstad, who has said he would sign it in to law, and major pro-life groups like Iowa Right to Life and Iowans for Life.

If Gronstal permits a debate and vote, the bill would likely be scheduled to be placed on the Senate calendar on Wednesday and become eligible for debate on Thursday.

The Des Moines Register newspaper indicated Sen. Roby Smith, a Republican from Davenport, asked Gronstal on the Iowa Senate floor today if he would allow a vote on the bill and the Democratic leader did not respond directly. Gronstal also declined to answer the question when he met with reporters later in the day.

Jenifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life, today urged lawmakers to back the legislation.

She said: “For months now Iowa Right to Life has relentlessly pursued stopping late-term abortionist LeRoy Carhart and others like him from performing late-term abortions in Iowa. We are determined to keep our state from becoming the late-term abortion capital of the Midwest. Please do not misunderstand. We are not interested in simply offering ‘safer abortions.’ We know that for each abortion a life is lost. That is not acceptable. We are calling on Senator Gronstal to be true to the statement he has repeatedly made, “I have said I would not block debate on this.”

In the House, House File 657 passed on a 60-39 vote that was largely along party lines.

“We have talked much in this chamber in recent weeks about the well-being of the care of animals in Iowa from doves to livestock,” said Republican Rep. Mary Ann Hanusa said during the debate, according to the Des Moines Register. “I would certainly hope that protecting the well-being of a 20-week-old unborn child and shielding it from the agony and painful death of an abortion would be at least as important topic of conversation.”

Democrats opposed the bill and claimed unborn children live in a sleep-like state of unconsciuosness that makes it so they don’t experience pain in the womb. Others said they opposed the bill because it would place limits on late abortions.

Rep. Walt Rogers, a Republican, also supported the bill and said he converted to the pro-life position after his wife was pregnant and he felt his baby kick and move.

“It was the coolest moment in my life to feel my child inside my wife’s stomach,” Rogers said.

In Nebraska, the first state to pass a fetal pain-based abortion ban, pro-abortion groups have not filed a lawsuit against it.

The science behind the concept of fetal pain is fully established and Dr. Steven Zielinski, an internal medicine physician from Oregon, is one of the leading researchers into it. He first published reports in the 1980s to validate research that showed evidence for it.

He has testified before Congress that an unborn child could feel pain at “eight-and-a-half weeks and possibly earlier” and that a baby before birth “under the right circumstances, is capable of crying.”

He and his colleagues Dr. Vincent J. Collins and Thomas J. Marzen  were the first top researchers to point to fetal pain decades ago. Collins, before his death, was Professor of Anesthesiology at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois and author of Principles of Anesthesiology, one of the leading medical texts on the control of pain.

“The functioning neurological structures necessary to suffer pain are developed early in a child’s development in the womb,” they wrote.

“Functioning neurological structures necessary for pain sensation are in place as early as 8 weeks, but certainly by 13 1/2 weeks of gestation. Sensory nerves, including nociceptors, reach the skin of the fetus before the 9th week of gestation. The first detectable brain activity occurs in the thalamus between the 8th and 10th weeks. The movement of electrical impulses through the neural fibers and spinal column takes place between 8 and 9 weeks gestation. By 13 1/2 weeks, the entire sensory nervous system functions as a whole in all parts of the body,” they continued.

With Zielinski and his colleagues the first to provide the scientific basis for the concept of fetal pain, Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand of the University of Arkansas Medical Center has provided further research to substantiate their work.

“The neural pathways are present for pain to be experienced quite early by unborn babies,” explains Steven Calvin, M.D., perinatologist, chair of the Program in Human Rights Medicine, University of Minnesota, where he teaches obstetrics.