Assembly passes bill banning abortion after 20 weeks
By Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Madison— A Republican-backed bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks from fertilization passed the Assembly on Thursday and headed to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker.
Action on the bill came four days before the Republican governor plans to announce his bid for the presidency Monday in Waukesha. He repeatedly declined to say what he thought of the idea when he ran for re-election last year, but as his likely presidential run has taken off he has said he supports the measure and would sign it.
The bill passed the Assembly on a 61-34 party-line vote.
Debate quickly became heated on the Assembly floor.
"I feel that any woman who votes for this bill is truly a traitor to your gender," said state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison).
Many Democrats told personal stories, or read emotional letters from women who said they wanted to have children but learned of serious, often life-threatening, medical complications late in their pregnancies. The legislation has no exemptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.
"This Republican abortion ban is cruel, folks," Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said.
But Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) said late-term abortions were devastating, violent procedures that caused unnecessary pain.
"This bill is not about banning abortion," he said. "It is about protecting children who can feel pain."
A federal court fight is expected over the measure, which passed the Senate last month.
In previous rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has left lower federal courts with little or no leeway to uphold a law of this kind, constitutional law experts from across the political spectrum have told the Journal Sentinel.
The procedure at that stage of development occurs infrequently in Wisconsin. That may make it more difficult for opponents of the law to identify a plaintiff and bring a lawsuit — so far they have been able to do so in three of the 14 states that have passed similar laws since 2010.
The bill would make it a felony to perform abortions after 20 weeks, except when the life of the mother is in immediate danger. Doctors who do such a procedure would face up to 31/2 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Senate President Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), one of the bill's lead sponsors, has said she believes her legislation would survive a court battle. She and other bill supporters insist a fetus can feel pain by 20 weeks, but key medical groups disagree.
During Thursday's debate, Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) accused most doctors of having a "pro-abortion bias."
Democrats and other bill opponents say it would complicate already difficult situations where a woman and her family are facing wrenching medical decisions.
Two years ago, Republicans in Wisconsin adopted another limit on abortion. That measure required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they practice. Planned Parenthood and Affiliated Medical Services — the state's two abortion providers — sued in federal court in Madison and U.S. District Judge William Conley immediately blocked the measure. In March, he ruled the requirement was unconstitutional and put a more permanent hold on the law.
GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel has appealed the ruling.
In 2013, 89 abortions out of 6,462 performed in Wisconsin were carried out after 20 weeks of gestation, according to state figures.
Fourteen states have banned abortions at 18 or 20 weeks. Similar bans in Georgia, Idaho and Arizona have been blocked by the courts.
In the other 11 states, no challenge has been brought largely because no clinics there had legal standing in court to bring a challenge, said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that favors reproductive rights.
The Arizona law was struck down by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and last year the U.S. Supreme Court declined to revisit that decision. The state and local government in Arizona paid $388,000 to cover the attorneys' fees and other costs for the plaintiffs there.
Earlier this year, the 9th Circuit also struck down Idaho's ban, finding it was unconstitutional on its face because it categorically banned some abortions before the fetus was viable.
In May, the U.S. House passed a similar bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. It's unclear when the U.S. Senate could take up the bill, but it would face a veto by President Barack Obama. The House bill includes an exemption for rape, and an earlier version of it stalled when female Republican lawmakers objected to how it dealt with sexual assault
Democrats said the measure was really about boosting Walker's 2016 presidential bid. The governor, who has drawn criticism from some conservatives over a 2014 television ad about the issue, asked that the measure not include exemptions, one GOP leader has said.
In that ad, Walker praised legislation he had supported, saying, "The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor."
Democrats said the 20-week abortion ban would help them win over Republican primary voters.
"Let's be clear, it's no coincidence that on Monday the governor will be announcing that he's running for president," said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). "This abortion ban is a part of his campaign."