Senate Debates Rights of Fetus Vs. Rights of Women

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The Idaho Senate weighed the rights of a woman against the rights of a fetus in an emotional debate that ultimately moved forward a controversial bill that would require ultrasounds prior to abortions.

The 23-12 vote followed mostly party lines but saw five Republican lawmakers oppose the measure that some called "an intrusive mandate."

“We have our feelings and we have our opinions. But we are not doctors,” Sandpoint Republican Sen. Shawn Keough told her colleagues. “We have been vigorous in our defense not to accept federal mandates. Yet here today, we’re going to mandate a medical procedure.”

The introduction of the measure aligned Idaho with similar efforts in Virginia and Texas to force women to undergo ultrasounds with the ultimate aim of reducing the number of abortions. The proposed mandate drew fire from opposition that argued the legislation would inject politicians into personal medical decisions, infringe on women’s constitutional rights and add burden and trauma to women facing crisis pregnancies.

“Some say this is new legislation but it is not,” said bill sponsor Boise Republican Sen. Chuck Winder, noting that a 2006 law made ultrasound imaging available to women prior to having an abortion if the medical facility had the equipment on hand. He said Senate Bill 1387 makes an ultrasound a mandate rather than an option. This particular bill takes it one step further and requires that the ultrasound equipment be made available.

Cottonwood Republican Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll ushered in the floor debate, saying that the bill does not take away a woman’s right to choose an abortion. It merely makes more scientific information available to women, she said.

“Shouldn’t we provide women with information so they do not fall into the depression and guilt that most often comes after an abortion,” said Nuxoll.

Ketchum Democratic Sen. Michelle Stennett questioned the constitutionality of the measure she described as a flawed mandate that would treat women like criminals. She said she could only think of two other state-mandated medical procedures: a blood draw ordered after a DUI suspect refuses a breathalyzer test and a lethal injection.

“In this bill, we treat a woman like a criminal before she takes any action,” said Stennett. “Senate Bill 1387 takes a decision away from a woman and puts in into the hands of the state.”

The bill sets up a Health and Welfare-managed referral system for free ultrasounds at pregnancy crisis centers and requires a doctor to sign off on the ultrasound and document the gestation of the fetus. Stennett argues that these requirements could force a woman to undergo two ultrasound procedures because pregnancy crisis centers often don’t have a licensed physician on staff and don’t have to abide by HIPPA, the federal privacy law. That could place a heavy burden on poor and rural women, Stennett argued. It could also jeopardize women’s privacy, she said.

The ultrasound method of choice is left to the physician but opponents of the measure noted that pregnancies of less than 10 weeks can often only be imaged with a transvaginal ultrasound — a procedure that some women consider invasive and requires the insertion of an imaging wand into a woman’s vagina. The measure does not exempt victims of rape, incest or pregnancies with fetal abnormalities from an ultrasound.

“A mandated procedure would be a second assault on these victims,” said Stennett.

The nearly two hour-long floor debate swung in heavy opposition against the bill. The opposition spoke of freedom and individual liberties while proponents of the measure evoked religion and faith in what they called a defense of the unborn. Supporters of the measure said they spoke on behalf of the rights of a fetus while critics defended the rights of women.

“There is a judgment being made as a government as to whose rights are more important,” Boise Democrat Sen. Nicole LeFavour said.

LeFavor reminded her colleagues that they represented a constituency that values the right to privacy and the freedom to make their own decisions.

“In this bill, there is a set of people targeted to be deprived of these rights,” said LeFavour.

And just as proponents drew guidance from God and the Bible, opponents asked lawmakers to uphold the U.S. Constitution and women’s rights.

“These are important rights, but we’re also talking about another right — the right to life,” said Caldwell Republican Sen. Jim Rice.

The Senate Democratic minority mounted a vigorous defense in opposition of the measure, eclipsing rounds of brief, proponent statements about the right to life with a dissection of the bill’s language and philosophical questions about the role of government.

“How far are we going to allow the power of the state to not just influence our decisions but dictate what we can do? “ asked Boise Democratic Sen. Les Bock.

“I believe that the State does have an interest in the lives of the unborn. This is what the debate is all about,” answered Winder.

The bill now goes up for debate in the Idaho House of Representatives.

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