INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana women seeking an abortion would be told life begins at conception under a proposal that would give the state one of the furthest-reaching abortion consent laws in the country.
Only one state — South Dakota — has gone so far in what it orders doctors to tell women before they can get abortions, and that law has been blocked by a court.
Supporters say the legislation would provide women key information before making an irreversible decision, but critics argue it blurs the line between church and state and could infringe on doctors' First Amendment rights.
"To put our religion or faithful beliefs into a statute that's going to be law, without being able to back it up scientifically, I have real hard questions about doing that," said Indiana Rep. John Ulmer, a Republican who voted against the bill.
Indiana is one of 29 states with "informed consent" laws that require women seeking an abortion to receive information about the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization in New York and Washington, D.C., that researches and tracks state abortion legislation.
Most tell women assistance is available for prenatal care, childbirth and infant care if they decide to carry their pregnancy to term. Three states — Arkansas, Nevada and Wisconsin — provide information about the possible psychological effects of an abortion.
Only South Dakota has beginning-of-life language similar to Indiana's proposal, which would require women seeking an abortion to be informed in writing that "human life begins when a human ovum is fertilized by a human sperm."
Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota challenged South Dakota's law, saying it infringed on doctors' First Amendment rights. No trial date has been set, but U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier of Rapid City granted a preliminary injunction last year blocking enforcement of the law, saying the plaintiffs have a good chance of winning.
The Indiana bill also would require abortion providers to tell women that a fetus may be able to feel pain. Such notice is required in Arkansas, Georgia and Minnesota, but those states specify that it applies to fetuses at 20 weeks gestation or later, while Indiana's proposal does not specify a gestation period.
Indiana's current law requires doctors to tell women about risks and alternatives to abortion, and to provide information about the fetus' age and potential viability. Doctors also must offer to show women an ultrasound of the fetus.
The proposed changes cleared the Republican-controlled House on a 70-30 vote Feb. 1; a committee of the GOP-led Senate is set to consider the bill this month.
Republican Rep. Tim Harris, the Indiana bill's House sponsor, said he did not intend to restrict abortion.
"We in no way infringe on a woman's right to an abortion," Harris said. "That's still legal. That is still the law of the land."
Supporters say the bill would give women information they need.
Dorothy Timbs, of the National Right to Life Committee, said many women seeking an abortion are told the fetus is nothing more than "a blob of tissue." She says women need to understand the consequences of an abortion on both the fetus and themselves.
"This is a decision that profoundly affects both forever and is irreversible," she said. "Women deserve this information. The more they have, the better off they are."
Abortion-rights supporters say that's only true if the information is based in medical fact.
"We're seeing more and more informed consent laws passed that are politically motivated, with items in there trying to dissuade women from having abortions, rather than being politically neutral and giving women true risks and benefits," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers in the United States and Canada.
Yale Law School Professor Jack M. Balkin said Indiana's proposal could withstand free-speech challenges if doctors tell women the information is required by the state and might not necessarily reflect their own views.
"If a doctor can put it in those terms, then he's acting as a conduit from the state to the woman," he said.