JEFFERSON CITY • A proposal to strengthen restrictions on late-term abortions in Missouri is on its way to Gov. Jay Nixon's desk after the Legislature granted final approval to the measure Thursday.
The bill, which passed in the House by a 121-33 vote, would ban abortions performed after 20 weeks of gestation, except if the fetus is not viable or in the event of a medical emergency. Two physicians would be required to approve an abortion. It would also become a felony for doctors to perform illegal late-term abortions, a crime carrying a minimum one-year prison sentence and a fine of as much as $50,000.
The changes are similar to anti-abortion measures being considered this year in a number of other states.
House Majority Floor Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, who handled the bill on the House side, called the measure "common sense, constitutionally defensible legislation to protect something that the state has paramount interest in, and that is protecting life."
"If you enjoy tax revenue and you enjoy continued support of the state, you should support this bill," Jones said. "If you support life in all its forms, you should support this bill.
"The question is whether you support the barbaric practice of ripping a child from the mother's womb in the late term and slaughtering it."
Most Democrats argued the new restrictions infringe on the rights of women and doctors in the state. In opposing the measure, Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, invoked her own struggle with an abortion decision four years ago, when she said her unborn son's father advocated that procedure. She decided to continue with her pregnancy.
"I'm pro-life for myself, but I'm pro-choice for everyone else," Tishaura Jones said. "The state needs to get out of my belly, out of my uterus, because that's my decision between me, my god and my doctor."
Current state law already prohibits abortions of fetuses considered viable except "to preserve the life and health of the woman." The new measure would allow such an abortion only in the case of a medical emergency or if the life of the mother is at serious risk. Though some legislators lobbied for it, an exception was not added for the mental health of the mother.
The other change in the new bill specifies that the new restrictions apply to abortions after 20 weeks. Current law does not set an exact gestational age, but instead relies on viability alone to determine what constitutes a late-term abortion.
The 20-week cutoff is especially controversial for some Democrats, who argue that "late-term" abortions should actually be considered such after 22 or 24 weeks of gestation, or that the law should continue to rely exclusively on viability and not on the length of gestation.
The definition of "viability" has also been key as the measure has moved through the Statehouse this year.
The House originally wanted to expand the definition to include fetuses with less chance of surviving indefinitely outside of the womb, but ultimately sided with the Senate position to keep the definition as is: "The stage of fetal development when the life of the unborn child may be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life-supportive systems."
Though it adds to the abortion restrictions in the state, the bill is not as far-reaching as abortion restrictions approved last year. Those changes mandated a handful of new abortion requirements, including a sonogram at least 24 hours prior to an abortion.
The governor, a Democrat, let that measure become law without signing it, even though most of his party opposed it.
Though Nixon has not yet voiced his opinion on the bill, veto-proof votes on the bill in both chambers could discourage a veto. A spokesman for the governor, Scott Holste, said the bill "will receive a comprehensive review."
If the governor does allow this year's abortion legislation to become law, the new restrictions will probably affect only a small number of abortions in the state.
Of 6,881 abortions in Missouri in 2009, just 63 were performed at 21 weeks of gestation or later, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services.
In spite of those small numbers, further restricting late-term abortions was the priority this session for pro-life advocates such as Samuel Lee, of the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Missouri. Lee said one goal of the legislation was to block LeRoy Carhart, a Nebraska-based doctor who specializes in late-term abortion procedures, from setting up shop in Missouri.
"We needed to have something in place to keep him from coming here," Lee said. He added, "And it's to see how far we can limit abortions."
At least five states this year have considered restrictions similar to those approved Thursday by the Missouri Legislature, with many more considering other anti-abortion measures.