Lawmakers, activists debate abortion bills
by Tim Lockette
Feb 19, 2014 | 3457 views |  0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY -- Lawmakers and activists held a wide-ranging discussion on abortion at the Alabama State House Wednesday, and their arguments sometimes came down to whether a heartbeat is the same thing as a viable life.

"We would not turn off the machine on someone who had a heartbeat," said Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, sponsor of a bill that would ban abortions when a doctor can detect a heartbeat in a fetus.

McClurkin's bill was one of four bills, all imposing new restrictions on abortion, that came before the House Health Committee in a public hearing Wednesday. Along with McClurkin's bill, House members discussed bills that would impose a 48-hour wait on women seeking an abortion and establish tougher rules on parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. They also discussed a bill that would require abortion doctors to provide information about hospice care for newborns when a woman is considering an abortion because a fetus has a fatal defect.

Abortion rights advocates said all four bills amounted to an attack on a woman's right to have an abortion.

"These bills are not about health care," said Susan Watson, director of the ACLU of Alabama. "These are bullying tactics that are meant to shame a woman into changing her mind."

Of the four bills, McClurkin's would likely be the most restrictive. Both sides said the measure would ban most abortions in the state. According to the National Institutes of Health, the heart begins to beat on a regular rhythm at six to seven weeks of gestation.

Joe Godfrey, director of the anti-abortion group ALCAP, said a heartbeat is one of the first signs of life a first responder looks for when treating an injured patient. Godfrey said the bill would protect people such as his two adopted daughters, who he described as "potential victims of abortion."

"You're protecting the lives of people who are going to provide society with benefits and blessings," he said.

Retired University of Alabama law professor Martha Monroe said the heartbeat bill was "blatantly unconstitutional." Courts, she said, have historically allowed abortion up to the age at which a fetus is viable outside the womb -- weeks after the heartbeat is audible.

""The court says abortion can't be prohibited prior to viability and this clearly does that," she said.

McClurkin's bill would require doctors to check for a heartbeat, and would make providing an abortion, when a heartbeat is audible, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Abortion providers would be required to make a record of the test.

Committee member Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, questioned whether doctors would be able to keep those records to the state's satisfaction. Rep. Ed Henry, R-Decatur, a medical technician, said those records are normally kept when a sonogram is performed.

Henry was a sponsor of one of the abortion bills, which would require that women seeking abortions be provided with information about other options 48 hours before a procedure. The bill would effectively double the current 24-hour waiting period.

"It would provide a woman with a little more time before making what would be a life-changing decision," he said.

Montgomery resident Pat Harris said women have already given thought to the decision before they walk through the doors of a clinic.

"Women can make their own decisions," she said. “They don't need the Legislature to come and tell them they need to wait another day."

Legislative committees typically don't vote on bills immediately after a public hearing, and no vote was held on the abortion bills Wednesday. The bills must pass out of the committee to go to the full House for a vote.

Abortion rights opponents in the audience urged lawmakers to pass all four bills. Hunter Mills, a student at Troy University, told lawmakers he was an adopted child who "would not be standing here" if his birth mother had decided to opt for abortion.

"It's time to implement a major change," Mills said.

Abortion rights advocates said the bills, if passed, would likely bog the state down in costly litigation. They said women should be able to make a decision on abortion on their own.

"I guess what I'm saying is, it's none of your business," Harris said. "Leave us alone."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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