SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rico on Tuesday held its first public hearing on a bill that aims to restrict abortions in the U.S. territory as powerful political leaders who support the measure seek to join a similar conservative push in the U.S. mainland.
If approved, the bill would ban abortions starting at 22 weeks or when a doctor determines that a fetus is viable. The only exception would be if a woman’s life is in danger. Most U.S. states already have similar laws, unlike Puerto Rico, where abortions with no term limit are currently allowed.
The hearing comes amid belief that a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could reverse or weaken a constitutional right to abortion stemming from the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. Currently 44 U.S. states have imposed a threshold on abortions, many at 20 to 24 weeks or at fetal viability.
Those who testified at Tuesday’s hearing included women who gave birth to premature babies several years ago and brought them to the hearing in a bid to demonstrate they were saved.
“A 22-week-old child is viable because that happened to me,” said Cathy Sue Cordero as pictures of the girl she gave birth to flashed on nearby screens.
Following their testimony, the women faced sharp questions from nearly a dozen senators, the majority of whom oppose the bill.
“I would love for all women in Puerto Rico to have the opportunity to make their own decisions regarding their body,” said Sen. José Antonio Vargas Vidot, who is also a doctor.
Vargas and other senators who spoke out against the measure noted that those who testified were loving parents who wanted to have a baby and had very good health insurance, including a plan that covered an air ambulance to save Cordero’s baby, which she had in the U.S. mainland.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, who is one of the bill’s authors, said it was the government’s responsibility to protect the lives of children, especially those she argued could survive outside the womb. She also dismissed concerns raised by critics who referenced children born to parents who didn’t want them or who become victims of violence.
“Those children will find other arms in which they’ll be held, taken care of and loved,” she said.
The hearing attracted a couple dozen people who remained largely quiet except for one moment in which a supporter of the bill called out, “Amen!” to a statement made by one of those testifying.
There are few recent polls on the issue in Puerto Rico, although according to a 2017 survey by Pew Research, about three quarters of people in the U.S. territory oppose abortion in all or most cases, a higher percentage than among Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. mainland.
Attending the hearing were members of a pro-life group who said they disagree with the bill because they support a complete ban on abortion.
In late March, a Puerto Rico Senate committee overseen by Rodríguez approved the bill in a 9-3 vote. The Senate was then expected to vote on it earlier this month but kicked it back to the committee following criticisms that no public hearings were held.