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Legislature hears testimony on controversial Republican abortion-related legislation

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State Capitol

Abortions based on fetal attributes such as race, gender or health condition would be banned, and doctors who fail to assist a baby that is born alive after an attempted abortion could face prison time under Republican bills that received a hearing Thursday.

Abortion rights activists said the controversial bills would limit access to abortion and women’s health care, while anti-abortion activists said the measures would help preserve life and, in the case of the bill banning abortions based upon fetal attributes, stop what they view as a modern form of eugenics.

Many of the bills in committee Thursday have been revived from the previous legislative session, when they were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.

The provisions, supported by GOP lawmakers and some anti-abortion activists, are again expected to be vetoed by the governor, and Republicans don’t have enough votes in the Legislature to override a veto.

One of the GOP-authored abortion bills that received a hearing Thursday would require a health care provider who is present in the event a fetus survives an abortion or abortion attempt to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child” once born.

The bill’s Assembly author, Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said the legislation would “ensure that should any baby being delivered in our state survive a botched abortion, that child cannot be gruesomely murdered after its delivery.”

Democrats say the bill is unnecessary because cases where a fetus survives an abortion attempt are rare.

Wisconsin already bans abortions after 20 weeks, before the point of fetal viability outside the womb, and federal law provides legal protections to all babies once they are born, including those who survive an abortion attempt.

Bill opponent Kristin Lyerly, a Green Bay doctor who serves as District 6 legislative chair for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said she believes the bill is aimed at cases where doctors induce labor because the mother or fetus has a profoundly serious medical issue.

In such cases where the fetus survives, Lyerly said the legislation would force doctors to intervene with IVs and breathing tubes even in cases where the baby won’t live long.

“These born alive bills are shameful,” Lyerly said. “These politicians who write these bills are playing with our heartstrings, making us think that we are just haphazardly performing abortions late in pregnancy. In reality, these babies that are born at this time are typically hospice babies, these are complicated decisions, these are families who are suffering, and this bill hurts them so much more than it could ever possibly help them.”

Under the proposed bill, doctors or health care professionals who violate the requirement to exercise professional skill, care and diligence when a baby is born alive in such circumstances would be guilty of a felony punishable by up to six years in prison, extended supervision and a fine up to $10,000. Doctors could face life imprisonment under the bill for intentionally causing the death of any baby born alive after an abortion.

The mother in such a case could not be prosecuted.

Democrats and abortion rights activists called the bills “dangerous” and “extreme.” They said the bills would limit access to abortion and women’s health care services.

“These bills mirror efforts that we have seen in other states, and are part of an ongoing national and local push to chip away at access to abortion and other reproductive health care,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison.

Other abortion bills

Another GOP-authored abortion bill would prohibit abortions based on factors such as a fetus’ sex, race or disability, particularly Down syndrome or other congenital disabilities.

Another would require doctors to inform women planning to have an abortion induced by a drug regimen that the ingestion of the first drug in the regimen may not result in an immediate abortion and that, if the woman changes her mind after ingestion of the first drug, she may be able to continue the pregnancy with immediate medical and pharmaceutical intervention.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not support prescribing medication to reverse a medically induced abortion, citing a lack of scientific evidence. According to the group, “so-called abortion ‘reversal’ procedures are unproven and unethical.”

“This is not evidence-based medicine,” Lyerly said. “This is quackery.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, the Assembly author of the bill, described it as one that would empower women with information.

Another bill would require hospitals and clinics to provide the state with more information about the abortions they perform.

Yet another bill lawmakers considered on Thursday would reduce public funding to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood by stripping away Medicaid funding. It would do so by preventing BadgerCare, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people, from being used at such facilities, even for non-abortion related services.

Challenges to Roe

The bills come at a time when abortion rights activists and others are increasingly worried access to abortion could be severely restricted if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or significantly revises Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that decided states cannot ban abortion before a fetus can survive outside of the womb, generally considered between 24 and 28 weeks.

That precedent could be challenged in an abortion case the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear from Mississippi. Another law in Texas effectively banning abortions in that state — put on hold this week by a federal judge — could also make its way to the high court.

If Roe v. Wade were completely overturned, abortion rights activists fear abortion would be banned in Wisconsin because the state has an existing 1849 abortion ban on the books that is unenforceable due to federal court decisions. The 1849 law criminalizes doctors who perform abortions. Under the law, performing an abortion is a felony punishable by up to six years of combined prison time and extended supervision.

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