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Reframing The Abortion Debate: Focus On Fetus
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Reframing The Abortion Debate: Focus On Fetus

Health

: restrict abortion. And at least two dozen new laws have passed.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports now on the latest focus of the fierce abortion debate.

KATHY LOHR: In a quiet darkened exam room, a picture of a field of sunflowers covers the back wall. A patient lies on a table, as Gloria Nesmith at the Feminist Women's Health Center in Atlanta gets ready to perform an ultrasound.

: Just relax, I'm gonna pull out a little drawer here for your feet. And what you're going to feel is some cold stuff on your belly.

LOHR: Eighteen states now have laws that say doctors must perform ultrasounds before an abortion or that women must be allowed to see one. Some states want to go even further, getting doctors to describe the fetus. But Nesmith says doing an ultrasound is routine.

: Historically I have always offered the woman the opportunity to see. It's their process, it's their abortion procedure.

Now would you like to see your ultrasound image?

U: Yes.

: Okay. This is the outline of your uterus.

LOHR: Nesmith says seeing the image and hearing the fetal heartbeat rarely makes women change their minds.

: I would say the vast majority of the women, they don't want to see or hear anything. Maybe a small percentage of the women want to see, but they don't want to hear.

Way less than 1% of the women are actually affected in any way.

LOHR: More than a dozen states passed new laws aimed at limiting abortion this year. Elizabeth Nash is with the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights group that tracks state laws. She says those who oppose abortion want to re-frame the debate.

: What we're seeing now is a more of an effort to take the woman out of the considerations of the law and really focus on the fetus.

LOHR: This year, Oklahoma passed what's considered the most far-reaching ultrasound law in the country. It requires doctors do an ultrasound and provide a detailed description of the fetus. That includes the dimensions of the embryo and the presence of internal organs. Mary Spaulding Bosch is with the National Right to Life Committee.

: It requires that there be a scientifically accurate description of what is being seen, yeah.

LOHR: The Florida legislature sent a similar bill to Governor Charlie Crist, who vetoed it. Bosch says it was the Midwest that proved the most successful for abortion opponents this year.

: I think that the people there see and recognize the life of the unborn child and think that the state should protect that life.

LOHR: Nash, with Guttmacher, says more states are passing ultrasound laws, saying women should be informed about their decisions, but she says the laws are invasive and unnecessary.

: Really this has nothing to do with making sure that a woman sees objective and appropriate information and everything to do with trying to steer her away from abortion.

LOHR: In addition to ultrasound laws, another state is pressing the legal boundaries by focusing on what it calls fetal pain.

LOHR: Head of Nebraska Right to Life, Julie Schmidt Alben, walked the halls of the capitol all year, garnering support for a law that bans most abortions after 20 weeks.

: I call it the perfect storm because our opponents in the abortion industry didn't see it coming.

LOHR: Alben says anti-abortion activists across the country are closely watching what happens.

: The significance of the new law is that it creates another standard, a standard based on an unborn child at least 20 weeks being able to feel pain.

LOHR: States can ban abortion after viability but that's generally 24 to 26 weeks, and is left up to the doctor to determine. Abortion rights groups oppose the law, and question the scientific evidence on fetal pain. Some suggest the law is really about something else.

: Pure emotion, yes.

LOHR: Nebraska Senator Ken Haar is one of just five legislators who voted against the bill.

: Now trying to institute a new standard, you know, a new bright line for abortion, it doesn't make sense. It's obvious to me that the right to life group in Nebraska is trying to outlaw abortion, period.

LOHR: The national health care debate highlighted the abortion issue this year, and many say that gave state legislators new momentum to pass their own measures. But several of the new laws will face legal battles, including Oklahoma's ultrasound regulation. A challenge to Nebraska's fetal pain ban is also expected later this year.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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