The decades-old fight over abortion rights in Wisconsin is heating up again as Republican legislators push a quartet of bills designed to curtail the practice despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ opposition. Here’s a look at the key elements in the debate:
HOW IS ABORTION RESTRICTED IN WISCONSIN NOW?
It’s complicated. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizes abortions performed before a fetus has a reasonable chance of surviving outside the womb. The ruling doesn’t define that point, saying it could range between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in 2015 that prohibits abortions in Wisconsin after 20 weeks gestation except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. A state law passed in 1849 bans abortions without exceptions but Roe vs. Wade invalidated it. The statutes remain on the books, however. Abortion rights advocates want to erase the language in case Roe vs. Wade is overturned.
WHAT HAVE REPUBLICANS PROPOSED?
Four bills on abortion since mid-April.
One would prohibit the state from certifying under Medicaid private health care providers that perform abortions. That would cut off Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood. Another would prohibit abortions based on the fetus’ race, sex or defects. Yet another would require providers to tell women seeking drug-induced abortions that they can still save the fetus after ingesting the first dose. That bill would also require providers to report to the state the number of abortions a woman has had, how she’s paying for the latest one and the reason for it.
The highest-profile proposal is a bill that would require health care providers to care for babies born alive as a result of an attempted abortion. Providers who fail to do so would face up to six years in prison. Providers who kill a baby born alive following an abortion attempt would face life in prison.
ARE ANY OF THESE PROPOSALS LIKELY TO PASS?
Assembly and Senate Republicans have scheduled hearings Tuesday on the bills, suggesting they’re on a fast-track toward floor votes. The measures have divided anti-abortion advocates, however; they say the bills aren’t tough enough. Sara Finger, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, called the bills “politically motivated” attempts to draw attention away from proposals in Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget expanding Medicaid coverage.
WHAT DOES THE GOVERNOR THINK?
Evers has already promised to veto the born-alive bill, saying current criminal penalties would apply to providers who won’t care for or kill abortion survivors. Asked about where he stands on the other bills following a news conference last week, Evers said he didn’t know what they did and refused to allow a reporter to tell him about the measures, saying he wanted to see the bills himself. Evers has said in the past he supports a woman’s right to choose. Signing any anti-abortion measure into law would spark serious questions about his loyalty to the Democratic Party.
IF EVERS ISN’T ON BOARD, WHAT’S THE POINT FOR REPUBLICANS?
It’s all about energizing the conservative base in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. Most Republican legislators face little threat from Democratic challengers since the GOP redrew district lines in 2011. But they don’t want to face primary opponents. Proposing the anti-abortion bills is a way to reassure their base that they’re true conservatives.
Wisconsin Republicans aren’t the only ones advancing anti-abortion legislation. Republicans are sending born-alive bills to liberal-leaning governors in other states, too. President Donald Trump is using the concept as a rallying cry; during an April 27 speech in Green Bay the president said he can’t believe Evers would veto legislation protecting babies; he also said Wisconsin doctors and mothers can currently decide whether to “execute” abortion survivors. Evers says doctors aren’t killing babies after failed abortions and called Trump’s remarks “blasphemy” and “horrific.”
HOW OFTEN ARE BABIES BORN ALIVE AS A RESULT OF ABORTIONS?
Not often. National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 143 instances in which live births resulted from abortion attempts between 2003 and 2014. It’s unclear how many happen in Wisconsin, if they happen at all. State officials don’t track such occurrences. They say the state bans non-emergency abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and a baby born then would be too young to survive anyway.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, one of the born-alive bill’s chief sponsors, says the lack of statistics doesn’t mean no children survive abortions in Wisconsin. Dr. Doug Laube, a Madison abortion provider and former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says live births resulting from abortions simply don’t happen in Wisconsin.
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