The bill bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest, except when the woman is undergoing a medical emergency. In an emergency situation, the bill “requires the physician to terminate the pregnancy in the manner that, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive” — not in the manner that provides the best opportunity for the woman to survive.
During a committee debate on the bill Thursday, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D) asked a representative from Legislative Counsel to clarify whether the bill requires the doctor to focus on the mother and the fetus, or just the fetus, in emergency situations. The counsel explained, “The statute is silent on the mother, and includes that provision related to the unborn child.”
Most 20-week abortion bans that have passed in states include language protecting the mother, because in an emergency situation, the procedure that is most likely to save the fetus may put the mother’s life further at risk. But the Wisconsin bill says only that the doctor is not “required” to employ a method of abortion that increases the risk to the woman.
Erpenbach tried on Thursday to attach an amendment to the bill that would require doctors to prioritize the mother’s health in emergency situations, but the Senate Health and Human Services Committee rejected it on a party-line vote.
Another major concern brought up at the hearing is that the legislation fails to define what constitutes a medical emergency, shifting the burden instead to individual doctors to decide whether they’re even legally permitted to provide abortion care in the first place. When pressed on the specifics of the medical emergency exemption, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), admitted that she had consulted with lawyers but not medical professionals when crafting the legislation.
Doctors would face a $10,000 fine and up to three-and-a-half years in prison for the felony of violating the law, and could be taken to civil court if someone feels they have exercised “unreasonable medical judgement.”
Several medical professionals who came to the hearing to speak out against the bill blasted this provision, saying it “criminalizes a necessary medical procedure.” The Wisconsin Medical Society, along with other leading state medical associations like the Wisconsin Section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, and the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics have all issued statements in opposition to the ban.
Abortion later in pregnancy is very rare. In 2013, only 85 abortions in Wisconsin occurred after 20 weeks, and these almost always severe fetal anomalies or a serious risk to the woman’s health. These are extremely complex situations where a woman, her family, and her doctor need every medical option available.
Eleven states have passed 20-week bans, according to the reproductive health think-tank Guttmacher Institute, which are unconstitutional based on the 22-24 week standard of a fetus’ viability outside the womb established by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
The Wisconsin abortion ban is expected to come up for a vote in front of the full Senate next week, and Gov. Scott Walker (R) has indicated that he will sign it if it reaches his desk.