OMAHA — Abortion opponents emboldened by a new Nebraska law that restricts late-term procedures based on the disputed notion that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks are pushing for similar legislation in other states, particularly those where Republicans won big in November.
National Right to Life held a strategy conference this week in Arlington, Va., to offer its state affiliates guidance for the 2011 legislative session. Indiana, Iowa and Kentucky lawmakers have already started drafting bills similar to Nebraska's law, and abortion opponents are pushing lawmakers in Kansas, Maryland and Oklahoma to do the same.
"What Nebraska did was fantastic," said Margie Montgomery, the executive director of Kentucky Right to Life. "That makes us more excited about it. Now we can point to it — it's already a law in Nebraska. That's really good for us."
Nebraska's law, which took effect Oct. 15, outlaws abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain after that point. It is a departure from the standard of viability, established by the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which allows 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.
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Physician LeRoy Carhart, one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers, who runs a clinic near Omaha, and his backer, the New York City-based Center for Reproductive Rights, have threatened to challenge the Nebraska law in court. Dionne Scott, a spokeswoman for the center, said it would file a challenge "when the circumstances are appropriate." But losing such a challenge would risk having the court throw away the viability standard in favor of a pain standard, which could be further lowered should it be proven fetuses feel can feel pain earlier than 20 weeks.
While some doctors contend that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it knows of no legitimate evidence showing a fetus can ever experience pain. It says a fetus' brain begins its final stage of development between the 20th and 40th weeks of pregnancy, and that certain hormones that develop in the final trimester also must be present for it to feel pain. It's not known exactly when those hormones form.
Nevertheless, the passage of Nebraska's law and the Republican Party's newfound power have emboldened those who want to outlaw abortion.
Mary Spaulding Balch, the legislative director for National Right to Life, said those working to outlaw abortion will be able to "do more in states where we haven't been able to do much in the past." She declined to name the states being targeted.