Pennsylvania lawmakers are pushing to outlaw the most common abortion method used in second-trimester procedures, embracing a new strategy from anti-abortion groups seeking to suppress the technique nationwide.
The bill, expected to be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D), would shift the state’s ban on abortions after 24 weeks of gestational age to 20 weeks and prohibit most abortions that involve what the authors describe as “dismemberment.”
Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren), who introduced the measure last week, said it’s designed to protect the fetus from feeling pain, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Rapp did not return The Post’s call for comment.)
Doctors and abortion advocates, however, said no evidence suggests a fetus can feel pain before 24 weeks, the edge of viability. The bill’s language, they argue, serves to further stigmatize and limit access to abortion.
While dismemberment is not a medical term, Rapp’s bill, which attracted about 100 sponsors, appears to target procedures in which physicians dilate a woman’s cervix and extract the fetus with tools, sometimes tearing the tissue. The method, known as dilation and evacuation, is used mostly to end pregnancies after 12 weeks.
Since the vast majority of abortions in the United States are performed in the first trimester, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the legislation would affect a comparatively tiny share of women who seek the procedure.
Roughly 99 percent of abortions in Pennsylvania happen before 20 weeks, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson said. The most common methods are vacuum suction and medication that induces miscarriage.
In cases where a woman catches a pregnancy later or cannot get an abortion during her first trimester, however, research shows the safest option is dilation and evacuation, also known as D and E.
David Grimes, a retired abortion provider of 38 years and former professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said legislation aiming to block the procedure would force women to either leave the state or undergo a seldom-used technique called labor induction abortion, which carries higher risk.
“[The bill] hurts women,” he said. “It dictates that women must have a substandard, second-class procedure.”
Grimes said asserting a fetus can feel pain before 24 weeks ignores science, pointing to a 2005 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The report, authored by five doctors, concluded fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester, which starts at 28 weeks.
“The wires that carry the signals have not yet been laid,” Grimes said.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group of 30,000 physicians, also oppose measures that ban certain abortion procedures, arguing in a statement, “these restrictions represent legislative interference at its worst: doctors will be forced, by ill-advised, unscientifically motivated policy, to provide lesser care to patients.”
The first bill that attempted to strike down D and E surfaced about two years ago in South Dakota but died in the statehouse. Kansas and Oklahoma followed suit, also employing graphic descriptions of the procedure.
The Pennsylvania bill, now on the House floor, seeks to end “the act of knowingly and purposefully causing the death of an unborn child by means of dismembering the unborn child and extracting the unborn child one piece at a time.”
Last year, Kansas became the first state to adopt a similar ban. But a Topeka judge soon after blocked enforcement of the mandate pending a trial and, in January, a state appeals court affirmed the decision.
Mary Spaulding Balch, director of the department of state legislation for National Right to Life, works to guide legislation that will prohibit what she considers a particularly violent form of murder. The language, she said, is meant to grab attention and inspire tighter abortion restrictions across the country.
“Our goal,” Spaulding Balch said, “is to provide protection to all unborn children.”
Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, 34, a psychology professor who lives in Pennsylvania, said these abortion restrictions hurt mothers — especially in wake of a fatal fetal diagnosis.
She was 20 weeks pregnant and badly wanted the baby, whose airway would not form. He’d either die in the womb, the doctor had told her, or shortly after birth.
Goldblatt Hyatt didn’t want him to suffer. So, she said, she opted to have a dilation and evacuation abortion.
“It was the hardest experience of my life,” she said of the 2012 procedure, “and I’m grateful for my doctor... To have that decision taken away? We would have been forced to deliver a stillborn baby.”