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House ready to vote on abortion bill requiring 24-hour waiting period

House members saved discussion of an abortion bill until 10 p.m. Wednesday, readying it for a likely Thursday vote in the chamber.

Its scope is wide. HB 277 would require pregnant women to wait 24 hours before receiving an abortion, among many other things.

Democrats grilled sponsor Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, for close to an hour about her bill, questioning its restrictions on new abortion clinics, a requirement that physicians who perform the procedure undergo yearly ethics training, and making the state report demographic information about each abortion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other elements of the bill.

They asked about the bill's newest requirement of doctors to describe "which steps could be painful to the fetus." According to the bill, "there is evidence that, by 20 weeks of gestational age, fetuses seek to evade certain stimuli in a manner that, in an infant or an adult, would be interpreted as a response to pain."

"I think this bill goes in the right direction in letting the mother know that babies can feel pain in five months," said Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored a bill this session banning abortions after 20 weeks on this premise. Elements of his proposal, though not the 20-week ban, were added to Burgin's bill.

House analysis notes that the capacity of the fetus to feel pain is the subject of "ongoing research and significant debate." Here's how committee staff put it:

The concept of fetal pain and the capacity of the fetus to recognize pain are the subjects of both ongoing research and significant debate. There are studies that suggest that a fetus may have the physical structures to be capable to feel pain by the gestational age of between 20-24 weeks. This research crystallizes around the connection of nociceptors (the central nervous system’s pain messengers) in the extremities of the fetal body to the central nervous system. In support of these claims, researchers have made the following observations:

  • That the fetus reacts to noxious stimuli in the womb with what would appear to be a recoil response in an adult or child,
  • There is an increase in stress hormones in the fetus in response to noxious stimuli,
  • and Fetal anesthesia may be administered to a fetus that is undergoing surgery in the womb, which may result in a decrease in fetal stress hormones.

However, there is also research to suggest that despite the presence of such a physical structure within the fetus, it still lacks the capacity to recognize pain. In a 2005 review of the evidence, the American Medical Association concluded that: pain is an emotional and psychological response that requires conscious recognition of a stimulus. Consequently, the capacity for conscious perception of pain can only arise after the thalamocortical pathways begin to function, which may occur in the third trimester around 29-30 weeks gestational age.”

In a 2010 review of research and recommendations for practice, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of the United Kingdom, noted the following in relation to fetal awareness: Connections from the periphery to the cortex are not intact before 24 weeks of gestation. Most pain neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception; cortical activation correlates strongly with pain experience and an absence of cortical activity generally indicates an absence of pain experience. The lack of cortical connections before 24 weeks, therefore, implies that pain is not possible until after 24 weeks. Even after 24 weeks, there is continuing development and elaboration of intracortical networks.

Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, asked if the bill was aimed to reduce abortions. Burgin said no, but "it is going to make sure that the ones that they are having are as safe as possible."

On the 24-hour waiting period, Burgin said, "I believe that abortion is a very cumbersome decision that one would have to make."

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, asked what kind of data would be reported to the federal government and available on a website. Burgin said age, gestational age, race, marital status, number of previous live births, number of previous abortions, and the patient's hometown.

Berman suggested information on the website could identify women in small towns. Burgin said it would not.