News analysis | Wisconsin Senate approves controversial abortion ban that experts say will have dire consequences for women, doctors and the state

AP and WiG reports

The Wisconsin state Senate has approved a controversial, potentially unconstitutional bill that would ban non-emergency abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill’s supporters in the Republican-controlled Senate say fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, while opponents argue that the suffering for Wisconsin women would be greater if the measure advanced. The Senate approved the bill on a 19–14 vote along party lines, with Republicans voting in favor.

All of the state’s major medical organizations oppose the law.

Advocates for a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby say the bill is an attack on sexually active women that’s designed to deflect attention from the Republican-controlled Legislature’s stalemate over a controversial budget bill. The budget slashes popular programs while giving away massive taxpayer dollars to wealthy business interests, including politically connected construction companies that build unneeded highways and the billionaires developing a new arena complex for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The abortion that passed would have minimal impact on reducing the number of abortions in the state.  The most recent information from the state Department of Health Services shows that only 1 percent of abortions in Wisconsin in 2013 occurred after the 20-week mark — in other words, 89 of the nearly 6,500 abortions performed that year.

The vast majority of such abortions only occur when severe fetal abnormalities are detected and the baby is unlikely to survive. Abortions after 20 weeks also are the result of the mother’s life being in grave danger if she continues with the pregnancy.

The Senate’s abortion law will wind up facing expensive litigation. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said it’s worth spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending the law in court regardless of its minimal impact. “Protecting life is something that we shouldn’t necessarily just put a price tag on,” Vos said.

Under the law, doctors who perform an abortion after 20 weeks in non-emergency situations could be charged with a felony and subject to $10,000 in fines or 3.5 years in prison. The fetus’ father could also press charges against the physician. As written, the bill doesn’t provide exceptions for pregnancies conceived from sexual assault or incest.

Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, a fervently anti-gay, fundamentalist Christian, said that passing the bill would prevent suffering during an abortion.

“It’s cruel to allow a baby and a mother to go through a process that inflicts that pain, ultimately ending a life,” Vukmir said. “How can we allow these abortions on five-month-old (fetuses)?”

But while the bill’s supporters, who are opposed to abortion under all circumstances, contend that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, science does not support them. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says research suggests fetal pain is not possible until the third trimester begins at 27 weeks.

State tea party leaders, however, do not believe in science.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said the bill disregards a mother’s health. The bill as written says a doctor cannot perform an abortion after 20 weeks unless the mother is likely within 24 hours to die or suffer irreversible impairment of one or more of the woman’s major bodily functions.

“The mother basically has to be knocking on death’s door for the doctor … to legally feel he’s OK to focus on the life of the mother,” Erpenbach said. “You’re going to take a doctor who makes a decision and you’re going to make him a felon.”

Vos said the Assembly could take up the abortion bill later this month or in the fall. He said Assembly Republicans had not yet discussed the measure, but he supported it.

“The bill as it’s drafted, I think, has a lot of merit,” Vos said at a news conference. “I do not certainly support the idea of allowing unborn children who feel pain to be aborted inside the womb.”

Gov. Scott Walker has said he would sign the bill into law.

Fourteen states have passed bans at 20 weeks or earlier, which depart from the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That ruling established a nationwide right to abortion but permitted states to restrict the procedures after the point of viability — when a fetus could viably survive outside the womb under normal conditions. If offered no legal definition of viability, saying it could range from the 24th to the 28th week of pregnancy.

Courts have blocked bans in Georgia, Idaho and Arizona. Litigation in other states is ongoing.

Associated Press reporters Scott Bauer and Dana Ferguson contributed to this report, as did WiG staff writer Louis Weisberg.