2 bills restrict right to choose
Proposed legislation splits Jackson delegation along lines of legal analysis versus emotion.
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 16, 2013
Two new bills that would further restrict a woman’s ability to get an abortion in Wyoming are exposing a fissure among Teton County legislators.
Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, are co-sponsoring a bill that would prohibit physicians from performing abortions if there’s a “detectable fetal heartbeat.”
Their support of the bill could put them at odds with Jackson Republican Reps. Keith Gingery and Ruth Ann Petroff, who are raising questions about the proposed legislation.
Gingery, a practicing attorney and chairman of the judiciary committee, said he wasn’t even sure whether House Bill 97 would hold up in court if legislators passed it into law. The five-term lawmaker said Monday that the legislation likely wouldn’t pass constitutional tests, though he said he was still reviewing the bill.
“On it’s face, it’s unconstitutional,” he said.
For Dockstader, House Bill 97 touches on a deep-seated belief from which he won’t back away. It’s an issue that he’s consistently backed in previous legislative sessions.
“It’s not a fanatical stand,” he said Tuesday. “It’s simple. It’s just a basic, solid stand for the life of a child.”
The Afton publisher said he’s been a staunch advocate for bills that seek to restrict abortions. As a father of four and grandfather of six, he said it’s an important issue.
“To me, this one is even more important because it involves specific language about the heartbeat,” he said.
The pending legislation, filed by Evansville Republican Rep. Kendell Kroeker, would prohibit physicians from providing abortions “after the embryo or fetus has reached a detectable fetal heartbeat.”
Existing state law says that abortions can’t be performed once the embryo or fetus has “reached viability.” Wyoming statutes include an exception for instances in which a woman’s life is in danger.
In addition to Halverson and Dockstader, the bill is being co-sponsored by Reps. Burkhart, Hutchings, Jaggi, Semlek, Teeters and Winters, and Sens. Hicks and Nutting.
It’s one of two bills filed during the current legislative session that deal with abortion restrictions. The other bill was filed by Sen. Leslie Nutting, R-Cheyenne.
Senate File 88 would require physicians to get a signed consent form before performing an abortion. It also would require physicians to talk to patients about a host of potential risks and possible alternatives to abortion at least 24 hours before the procedure.
Some of the required information physicians would have to talk about includes “the immediate and long-term medical risks associated with the proposed abortion method, including the risks of infection, hemorrhage, cervical or uterine perforation, danger to subsequent pregnancies, the increased risk of breast cancer and the death of the unborn fetus.”
Gingery says bill likely unenforceable
Physicians also would be required to use an ultrasound to tell women about the physical development of the fetus.
“The pregnant woman shall be offered the opportunity to view the ultrasound image and hear any audible heartbeat of the unborn child,” the bill reads.
The two bills launch a perennial legislative debate about a woman’s right to choose — and divide Teton County’s lawmakers. Some Jackson-area legislators dissect bills from a technical and legal perspective, while others go with their guts.
Gingery focused on the legal aspects of Kroeker’s proposal.
The deputy county attorney said he’s not opposed to bills that place more restrictions on abortions, but is reluctant to support a bill that could create legal problems for the state.
Gingery cited a U.S. Supreme Court case from the mid-1990s — Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey — that changed the gestational window when lawmakers can restrict abortions. Politicians can’t place restrictions on abortions during the first and second trimesters, he said.
“This couldn’t be enforced,” Gingery said of the legislation.
While Gingery qualified his opposition by saying that he’s still reviewing the proposal, Petroff said she unequivocally opposes it.
Petroff, who won her second term in the House last November, has a history of supporting abortion rights.
“We don’t place restrictions on any other type of medical procedure,” she said Monday.
In 2011, Petroff voted against a bill that would have required women to have an ultrasound before getting an abortion and one that would have required physicians to inform patients that they have the right to see an ultrasound and listen to the fetus’ heartbeat.
Both bills failed to make it through the full Legislature.
Petroff’s position has opened her up to stiff criticism from fellow Republicans, most often during the election season. Last year, Republican candidate Bob Biolchini called out Petroff for her support of abortion rights in a series of aggressive advertisements.
Halverson did not respond to several messages seeking comment about the bill.
The first-term lawmaker said several times last year that she did not plan to pursue any social issues during her time in the Legislature.
In one questionnaire, Halverson said that one of the few restrictions she would support were ones that would protect the rights of parents of minors seeking abortions.
“I think that’s about the only restriction I would support,” she said in response to a questionnaire last fall.
Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, said he had not yet reviewed Kroeker’s proposal. The legislation filed in the Senate resembles a bill Christensen already helped sink.
In 2011, the Alta legislator cast the deciding vote against a bill that would have required physicians to offer an ultrasound to pregnant women who are seeking an abortion.
Christensen cast the final vote in a 15-14 decision. Gingery voted for the bill while Petroff and former Democratic Rep. Jim Roscoe cast votes in opposition.
Dockstader voted in favor of the bill.
“It’s the same bill that came through two years ago,” Christensen said. “At that time, I did research in the local medical community and found that most of the practices are in effect already.”
Bill undermines individual rights
Christensen said he didn’t see the need for the new restrictions if many of them already are being done voluntarily. He said he still needs to review the bill more fully.
Dr. Brent Blue, a family practitioner in Jackson, said the proposed bills would only serve to drive a wedge between physicians and patients.
“That just adds confusion,” he said Monday from Buenos Aires. “The legislation is interrupting the ability of the physician and patient to communicate without government interference.”
Blue, who has been the target of several anti-abortion protests in recent years, said enforcing the bill would be a nightmare.
Additionally, it runs contrary to the attitude of many residents that individual rights should be held in the highest regard, Blue said.
“This truly is an anti-Wyoming bill,” he said.
Blue explained that less than 1 percent of his business is related to abortions. It’s not about the money, he said.
“We feel that a woman should not have to travel 150 miles to obtain appropriate health care,” Blue said.
The two abortion bills were introduced last week but haven’t yet been taken up by a committee.