ATLANTA (AP) -- Senate lawmakers eased a major restriction Monday on a bill that would ban women from getting abortions five months into a pregnancy, opening a rift with House lawmakers who backed a more stringent proposal.
The original legislation from Rep. Doug McKillip is part of a national campaign to ban abortions starting 20 weeks after conception when abortion opponents say a fetus can start feeling pain -- a point disputed by doctors. The Republican's bill made exceptions for pregnancies that threaten the life or health of the mother. It would not permit abortions after the deadline to protect a mother's mental health.
In a major shift, the Senate adopted a last-minute change that would allow women to get an abortion even after the five-month mark if a doctor determined a fetus has a fatal congenital or chromosomal defect. Critics of the bill have said that many abortions performed so late in a pregnancy are sought by parents who learn their unborn child will not survive outside the womb.
"I think we need to give doctors and their patients that opportunity," said Republican Sen. John Bulloch, who supported changing the bill and ultimately voted for its passage. He said lawmakers should "not punish a pregnant woman."
It was unclear whether House Republicans will accept the new changes. McKillip said he did not have an immediate opinion on the new version, though his Senate allies had urged lawmakers to vote down the changes. If McKillip does not strike an agreement by Thursday, when the General Assembly adjourns for the year, his proposal will fail.
Women can now get abortions in Georgia for any reason during the first six months of a pregnancy. They are legal during the last three months only to protect a woman's life or her physical or mental health. The proposal from McKillip would effectively narrow the time women can decide to legally get an abortion by about a month.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, a Republican who supported the bill, compared modern abortion to the ritual sacrifice of children condemned in the Bible. He spoke before the legislation was altered.
"We sacrifice children not to propitiate the gods for a good crop but for convenience and other reasons," Williams said.
Doctors and geneticists have told state lawmakers that some tests and other information on fetal health may be unavailable before 20 weeks, forcing parents to make decisions based on incomplete information.
Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, spoke about the experience of one couple who she said learned close to the proposed deadline that their unborn son was not surrounded by protective amniotic fluid in the womb. He lacked kidneys, functioning lungs and was so constricted that his limbs and features became deformed, Valencia said. The couple got an abortion.
"They didn't want their son's life being spent in an environment that was so cramped that his body grew deformed and he could not move around, only to suffocate upon birth," Seay said. "Their son was not going to live regardless of when he was born."
McKillip's bill first passed the House last month. Since then, he voluntarily changed it to make clear that the names of doctors who report performing abortions to the state must be held confidential. House lawmakers must vote to approve the changes before the bill could go to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.
If enacted, Georgia would be the seventh state to pass a version of the so-called fetal pain act.
The legislation proposed in Georgia is modeled after a 2010 measure adopted by Nebraska that later inspired other bills in Kansas, Alabama, Idaho, Indiana and Oklahoma. The proposals depart from the standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court which allow states to limit abortions when there's a reasonable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb, generally considered to be around 23 or 24 weeks.