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GOP’s 14-week abortion ban plan draws criticisms on 51st Roe v. Wade anniversary

Measure opposed by VP Kamala Harris, Wisconsin Democrats, physicians and anti-abortion groups

By Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner - January 23, 2024
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Protesters gathered outside the state Capitol building in Madison, Wis., Friday, June 24, 2022 evening in advance of a protest.
Protesters gathered outside the state Capitol building in Madison, Wis., Friday, June 24, 2022 evening in advance of a protest. The Supreme Court on Friday stripped away women’s constitutional protections for abortion, a fundamental and deeply personal change for Americans' lives after nearly a half-century under Roe v. Wade. The court’s overturning of the landmark court ruling is likely to lead to abortion bans in roughly half the states. (AP Photo/Harm Venhuizen)

The 51st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion until 2022 in Roe v. Wade brought a hearing on a bill proposed by Republican state lawmakers that would ban abortion at 14 weeks, and a visit from Vice President Kamala Harris, who rallied  Democratic voters around abortion access by slamming national and state Republicans for their proposed bans and committing to fight for access. 

With Rep. Amanda Nedweski (R-Pleasant Prairie) and Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) signing on as the lead authors, Republicans introduced the bill — AB 975 — on Friday, just a couple of days before the anniversary of the ruling Roe v. Wade. The bill would put a referendum to voters on whether to ban abortion in Wisconsin past 14 weeks of pregnancy in April this year. It would need to pass the Legislature and receive approval from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers before it would go to voters. If voters gave their approval, a new law would take effect banning abortion at 14 weeks. 

It comes at a time when Wisconsin is still grappling with whether abortion is legal under state law.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and other abortion providers in the state immediately ceased providing abortion services due to an 1849 criminal law that was widely interpreted as banning abortion. After a recent decision by Dane County Judge Diane Schlipper ruled that the statute applies to feticide, not abortion, Planned Parenthood decided to restart services in Madison, Milwaukee and Sheboygan. Those clinics are now operating under abortion laws that were in place in Wisconsin before Roe V. Wade was overturned, including a 20-week abortion ban. 

The decision is being appealed by Sheboygan District Attorney Joel Urmanski, who has said that he disagrees with the ruling, to the state Supreme Court. 

A few hours before Monday’s lengthy, contentious hearing on the bill, Harris visited Waukesha County to rally voters in opposition to statewide abortion restrictions as well as federal proposals at the kickoff of a national “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” Tour. 

“Extremists have proposed and passed laws that criminalized doctors and nurses with prison time, even for life, simply for providing health care,” Harris said. “Extremists evoked a law from 1849 to stop abortion in this state… In a state whose motto is ‘Forward,’ we’re not having that.” 

Nodding to the new bill, she added, “Extremists are not done. This afternoon in the Wisconsin Legislature, extremists hold a hearing on a new bill that would ban abortion in this state with no exceptions for rape or incest and in the United States Congress extremists are trying to pass a national abortion ban.”

Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson wrote on social media that the bill “fully aligns with the primary goal of allowing “we the people” to decide: “at what point does society have the responsibility to protect the life of an unborn child?” He had previously called for a statewide vote in Wisconsin and said he thought most people would support a 12-week ban. 

During a Committee to Protect Health Care press call Monday morning, Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a Green Bay OB/GYN, said that restrictions on abortion in Wisconsin and nationwide mean worse reproductive health care. She also questioned Wisconsin Republicans’ bill and its 14-week restriction. 

“Fourteen weeks, 15 weeks, six weeks. What does it all mean?” Lyerly said. “It’s all arbitrary. They are doing this to be political. This has no foundation in women’s health.”

The bill states that current law prohibits abortion “if the postfertilization age of the unborn child is 20 or more weeks, except in the case of a medical emergency,” and defines “postfertilization age of the unborn child to mean the number of weeks that have elapsed from the probable time of fertilization of a woman’s ovum.” That definition would remain the same should the bill pass. 

Voters would then specifically be asked the question of whether the statutory provisions treated in the bill shall take effect “thus prohibiting under Wisconsin Statutes an abortion if the probable postfertilization age of the unborn child is 14 or more weeks, except in the case of a medical emergency?”.

“Postfertilization age” is not a medical term, Lyerly said.

“We don’t know in most pregnancies when fertilization occurs, so how can you base a ban, an arbitrary ban, on a day that you don’t even know when it started?” she said. “This is ridiculous. It’s non-medical. It harms people. It harms families, and it’s just absolutely insane.” 

Gov. Tony Evers has already promised to veto the bill, saying on social media that he would take that action against “any bill that makes reproductive health care any less accessible for Wisconsinites than it is right now.” 

At the start of the hearing Monday, Rep. Amanda Nedweski (R-Pleasant Prairie) defended the bill, saying that it was a chance to hear from voters. She also defended its exclusion of rape and incest exceptions. 

“If it were up to me, there would be no abortions in this world. I believe that life begins at conception, and that an abortion at one week, 14 weeks or 20 weeks is equally as tragic and ending a single life. Certainly though, this is not up to me alone and people have a wide range of personal feelings and intimate feelings about this issue, as they have a right to,” Nedweski told the committee. “As a realist and a pragmatist, I authored this life-saving legislation to ask the people what they want, to find out where we truly are in this society.” 

Nedweski and Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield) insisted that the bill was not about the merits of abortion, but about giving voters an opportunity to weigh-in. 

“This bill gives the other side, what has been requested over and over again, and I ask that we give the voters a chance to decide and stop playing political games with this crucial issue,” Rozar said. 

“What we are not here to discuss today is whether abortion is right or wrong morally, health care affordability and accessibility, the rights of a pregnant woman versus the rights of an unborn child, scientific aspirations as they relate to the concepts of viability, Roe v. Wade or the Dobbs decision…,” Nedweski said. 

Rep. Lisa Subeck, pointed out that exceptions for rape and incest were not included in the bill despite Nedweksi saying she supports exceptions. 

“Why didn’t you include them?” Subeck asked. 

Nedweski said that she thought that if someone that had experienced rape or incest that 14 weeks would be a long enough time frame to make a decision.

“If you know that you’re pregnant within the first 14 weeks, well, as I said, in my testimony, I’m not going to debate the science of biology here, but as a mother, and having known people who thought they didn’t know they were pregnant, I have a really hard time believing that somebody who doesn’t know they’re pregnant at 14 weeks wants to know, maybe they just don’t want to know,” Nedweski said. “I don’t know that, but we have technology, and medical advancements today that can tell you if you are pregnant the day after conception. If you want to know if you’re pregnant, you can find out.”

“I’m not prepared to make those judgments about what a 13-year-old, maybe a victim of rape or incest, may or may not know or may or may not have access to,” Subeck replied. “You said you support exceptions and yet they’re not in the bill.” 

Following legislators’ testimony, Assembly Republicans’ proposed bill was criticized by an array of groups, including Democrats, anti-abortion groups, students and health care professionals. In total, 27 witnesses spoke against the bill, while three spoke in favor. 

Laura Swoboda, a wound care specialist from Mequon, shared her personal and professional concerns about the proposal, telling lawmakers that she experienced a devastating miscarriage two years ago and that the emotional toll would have been greater if she had been forced to carry the dead fetus longer. 

“This is a medical decision between the patient and their health care provider. Threatening medical providers with charges for providing routine obstetric and gynecologic care to their patients is a misuse of government power,” Swoboda said. “This Friday, I returned from Texas and experienced relief arriving in Wisconsin as a childbearing-age woman and knowing that if I again experienced prenatal complications, I would be able to decide with the consultation of my health care provider on how to proceed with my own body. I do not want those in office to make my medical decisions. I don’t want the general public to make my medical decisions.” 

Democrats on the committee, including Subeck, Reps. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee), Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa), Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), said in a statement that it was clear that Republicans are “intent on restricting access to abortion even though [restrictions are] deeply unpopular with the people of Wisconsin.” 

They added, “Determining if and when to have an abortion is a personal decision that should be made by patients and their doctors, not by politicians. Wisconsinites need the freedom to make their own reproductive health care decisions.” 

Representatives of the “Help Not Harm” Coalition, made up of the state’s main anti-abortion groups including Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life, Wisconsin Family Action and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, also testified against the bill, saying that they still think that the state’s current 1849 statute is strong legislation and that lawmakers were jumping the gun in proposing a new abortion ban.

“Our coalition is opposed to the introduction of an abortion referendum during a time when the current state of abortion ban Wisconsin statute 9404 continues to proceed through the court system,” Gracie Skogman of Wisconsin Right to Life said. 

Matt Sande of Pro-Life Wisconsin said that people couldn’t know if the state Supreme Court would in the end rule the law enforceable or unenforceable. He said if it is ruled unenforceable, then the Legislature will need to pass a new ban, but that lawmakers shouldn’t make a decision before there is a final decision.

“What is the likelihood of the high court ruling in your favor on this appeal?” Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie) asked Matt Sande of Pro-Life Wisconsin.

“Let’s defend this law. This is the Legislature’s law. This is your law. The legislature created this in 1849. It’s a strong pro-life law. It bans abortion from conception. We’re trying to tighten it up. It has good criminal penalties…,” Sande responded. “This is what we should be strongly defending, and… putting this bill forward does signal that the Legislature’s doubts about its lawfulness and I don’t think that’s a good message to send.”

The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday afternoon.

This story was originally published in the Wisconsin Examiner


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