CHARLESTON (AP) - A bill to prohibit abortions later than 20 weeks after conception moved forward Thursday in the state Senate Judiciary Committee and will be heard on the full Senate floor later this week.
The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks except in cases when a doctor deems a patient at risk of serious physical impairment or death. The mental health of the patient is not to be considered a determining factor, under the bill.
The committee amended the bill to allow termination if a fetus isn't medically viable, but doctors must provide the best opportunity for fetuses to survive after 20 weeks.
Moreover, the bill says that doctors must report all abortions to the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Each report must include the post-fertilization age of the fetus and how that determination was made. In the case of abortions performed after 20 weeks, doctors' reports must justify their decision and show they have provided the best opportunity for the fetus to survive.
The bill orders the Health Department to issue an annual report of abortion statistics starting by June 30, 2016.
Doctors, who could be fined up to $4,000 if they violate the law, told the committee the law could delay a woman's care.
"This bill criminalizes accepted medical standards, and it eliminates our ability to care for patients," said Dr. Stephen Bush, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at West Virginia University in Charleston. He said these regulations might make doctors afraid of being fined, causing them to wait longer before inducing labor and putting the mother at risk.
The bill sets the abortion ban at 20 weeks post-conception, but Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, explained that most physicians calculate weeks from a woman's last menstrual cycle. In essence, the bill is a 22 week bill, he said.
Doctors said most fetuses are considered medically viable at 24 weeks or 500 grams in weight. Neither of the two physicians who spoke Thursday said they had seen a fetus survive outside the womb prior to 24 weeks. Bush said only 40 to 50 percent of children born at 24 weeks survive.
Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, asked for someone to speak to the constitutionality of the bill. The committee attorney said other states have passed similar 20 week bills that have been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. He said states are not allowed to prohibit abortions prior to fetal viability.
John Carey, with West Virginians for Life, said the Senate bill speaks to pain inflicted on the fetus and not fetal viability. He said the Constitution allows for abortion bans based on pain.
On Wednesday, The Associated Press asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin if he would sign the abortion bill. He said he would take a look at it if it passed the Senate floor. The House passed the bill in February.