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Republicans want health care workers to provide life-saving care for all babies born alive, taking aim at abortion, but critics say a bill passed by the Arizona Senate could mandate the torture of premature babies who have no chance of survival.
While the Republican behind the legislation, Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, said it was about protecting the vulnerable, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle worried that it could put doctors in the untenable position of having to provide painful or unnecessary interventions to an infant that was incapable of survival.
“I will always stand to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Shamp said.
Her Senate Bill 1600, which passed through the Senate by a vote of 16-13 on Feb. 23, would amend the existing law to view an infant who is delivered alive as a legal person with the same rights to medically appropriate and reasonable care as anyone else, no matter what stage of development the baby has reached.
Existing law already requires that abortion providers give medical care and contact emergency services if a fetus developed to 20 weeks is delivered alive. Abortion in Arizona is currently only legal up to 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Health care workers who violate the law could face a felony charge, lose their medical license and face a civil lawsuit.
Democratic Sen. Eva Burch, of Mesa, said she was worried about the harm that this bill could cause for infants delivered too early to possibly survive, and to their families.
“I agree in spirit with any legislation that supports medical intervention for viable babies,” Burch told the Senate. “For pre-viable babies, there is no medical reason for that.”
Some of those medical interventions are painful, Burch added, and in her opinion, amount to torture if they have no chance of saving the infant. She shared with her colleagues that this issue was close to her, as she’s had multiple failed pregnancies that she said were very much wanted.
Shamp countered that, because the bill says health care workers must provide “medically appropriate and reasonable care,” doctors could decide to provide only comfort care to the infant and family, if that’s what they thought was best. But the bill also specifies that health care workers must provide life-saving care to the infant, even if they believe it has little chance of survival; parents can opt out of that care if “death is imminent.”
But one of Shamp’s Republican colleagues from Prescott, Sen. Ken Bennett, who described himself as “pro-life as you can get,” also said he had concerns about the bill in its existing form.
Bennett shared, at times through tears, some of his daughter’s experiences as a labor and delivery nurse for the past 15 years. She often tends to some of the most difficult cases, ones that often end in the baby’s death, he said. The concerns that some Democrats shared about the bill were compelling, he said, adding that he wasn’t sure the legislation struck the right balance between protecting life and allowing health care providers to work with their patients to make the best decision for each individual situation.
“These decisions are just gut-wrenching,” Bennett said. “I get concerned when I read about health care professionals’ licenses being at risk if they don’t make the right decisions.”
Bennett ultimately voted in favor of the bill, but said he wanted to continue to work to improve it and to try to gain bipartisan support. After its approval by the Senate, the bill will next head to the House of Representatives.
Sen. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, defended the measure as only applying to attempted abortions, as doctors and parents would obviously jump to save infants who are wanted. The language of the bill says that it applies to all infants born alive.
A fetus is potentially viable after 24 weeks of development, and less than 1% of abortions in the United States are performed after that. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, only 1.6% abortions in 2021 were performed on pregnancies at least 21 weeks of gestation.
That same year, out of 13,998 total abortions, nine fetuses were reported to the department as delivered alive. Doctors are already required to submit these reports, along with a statement documenting proof that they took measures to preserve the life of the fetus or embryo.
Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, told the rest of the Senate that confusion about what it means to have an abortion is happening because the nation has lost its way and is no longer following the teaching of the Bible.
Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Glenadale, countered that she believes there is zero confusion about the issue of abortion.
“This bill does not help anybody, regardless of their political stance,” she said. “Reproductive health care should not be legislated by any member of this chamber.”
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