‘Those Chromosomes And All That’: AL GOP Fumbles Medical Basics Before Abortion Ban

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May 15, 2019 1:23 p.m.
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Following in the recent footsteps of allies in Ohio, Georgia and elsewhere, Republican state senators in Alabama last night voted to essentially ban legal abortions, flinging themselves at the feet of the Trumpified Supreme Court where one of these bills will almost certainly soon end up.

In the debate before the vote, the lawmakers revealed a lack of basic knowledge about the medical foundations — or lack thereof — of their legislation.
The Alabamians, like their colleagues in other states, want to be the tip of the spear in the fight to criminalize all abortion federally. Their legislative ticket to court, which Gov. Kay Ivey (R) is expected to sign, is extreme.

House Bill 314 is the most restrictive abortion ban in the country. Without any exception for cases of rape or incest — even for 11-year-olds — it bars all “abortion and attempted abortion” by women “known” to be pregnant, penalizing doctors with up to 99 years in prison for performing the procedure. It makes an exception for abortions required to “prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother.”

The bill passed with 25 white Republican men in favor (the Senate has just three female members, all Democrats) to six Democrats against. The debate proceeding Tuesday night’s vote revealed the kind of sound medical knowledge Alabama’s Republican Senate supermajority used to make their decision.

State Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville, pictured above) answered questions all night on behalf of the chamber’s Republicans, but neglected to properly define numerous terms and phrases in the legislation — particularly the language outlawing abortions for women who are “known” to be pregnant.

Reporters speculated that this emphasis was meant to exclude the morning-after pill. Chambliss stumbled through an explanation.

“I’m not trained medically, so I don’t know all the proper medical terminology and timelines and that sort of thing, but from what I’ve read, what I’ve been told, there’s some period of time before you can know that a woman is pregnant,” he said. “This bill respects that period of time. The bottom of page five talks about having to be ‘known to be pregnant.’”

The time before a woman “is known” to be pregnant, he said, “gives them that window of time. This bill does not change that window of time. Once that person is known to be pregnant, then this bill will take effect.”

He added separately: “You can’t know that immediately. It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that.”

But if chromosomes from a man and a woman meeting is the deadline for women legally terminating a pregnancy, that’s quite a different standard than a “known” pregnancy. Days or weeks elapse between fertilization and positive pregnancy tests, Democratic lawmakers pointed out. Where does the law stand on those early days?

Chambliss didn’t have an answer. 

When Democratic Sen. Rodger Smitherman asked how a woman who might be called as a witness in the felony trial of a doctor could prove whether or not she was knowingly pregnant at the time of her abortion, Chambliss replied “I think the burden of proof is on the state to prove that she knew. That’s the way it all works.”

How could a doctor prove that they helped a woman remove a miscarried fetus, rather than abort a potential life? Smitherman asked.

The burden is on the state, Chambliss repeated.

Rape and incest survivors, the Republican lawmaker said, “need to go get help immediately so they could get the physical help they need.”

“If they wait,” he said, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Later, when Democratic Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison asked Chambliss for his own definition of who is “known” to be pregnant, the senator balked again.

“If you don’t know, then you’re not known to be pregnant,” he replied.

Coleman-Madison seemed to know that was coming.

“I guess that’s a typical male answer,” she responded. “You men don’t know what you don’t know.”

And what of eggs fertilized in labs? If abortions are outlawed in cases of “known” pregnancy — as early as a fertilized egg, according to Chambliss — should fertilized eggs that have yet to be transferred to a woman’s uterus have legal protections?

The Republican state senator revealed his real argument: The bill does not address all potential children, but rather women’s bodies.

“The egg in the lab doesn’t apply,” Chambliss said. “It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.”

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