A new law awaiting the governor’s signature allows for disciplinary action against doctors who do not report abortion procedures to the state within 110 days.
Advocates say the bill would produce more reliable data about procedures, which is expected to help direct public health services, like where contraceptives are needed.
Some providers and pro-choice groups oppose the bill, however, saying the law unfairly singles out a group of medical providers for potential harassment.
“It is a bill that is basically penalizing doctors who are providing appropriate and legal women’s care,” Dr. Brent Blue said. “For a state that prides itself on keeping government out of people’s lives, this is a true travesty.”
Abortion forms date to 1977
The state office of vital records established an abortion reporting form in 1977, which requests information such as an estimate of the gestation, length and weight of the fetus or embryo and the age, marital status and race of the woman.
Currently doctors have 20 days to complete the form, but there are no consequences for failing to do so.
In its introductory form House Bill 103 threatened a $1,000 fine and potential jail time for physicians who didn’t report. Legislators amended the bill to leave discipline to the discretion of the Wyoming Board of Medicine.
Per state statute the board’s disciplinary reach ranges from a private reprimand to suspension or revocation of a medical license. The board may also impose fines up to $25,000.
The Wyoming Medical Society’s legislative tracking document states opposition to the bill, but, when reached, leaders said they had no comment at this time.
Sponsors say data is needed
The legislation was sponsored by Reps. Richard Tass, R-Buffalo, and Scott Clem, R-Gillette. Clem told the News&Guide in January that he introduced additional reporting requirements because he wants the state to have more information.
“It’s hard to craft good policy without good data,” Clem wrote in an email. “This data is important to the state because it can be used to influence policy decisions on education and family planning, something I think we can all agree on.”
Clem also made it clear that he didn’t support abortion in most cases.
“While abortion is legal, and in most cases safe, we also want it to be rare, as the potential consequences of such a decision go well beyond the date of the abortion,” he said. “Education on contraception and family planning is better for Wyoming women than a decision they may later regret.”
House Bill 103 prohibits sharing the names, addresses, social security numbers or driver’s license numbers of patients. Reports would not be made public and would be available only to the attorney general or a district attorney pursuant to a criminal or Wyoming Board of Medicine investigation.
But critics say that in a small state where everybody seemingly knows everybody else, patients could be tracked down.
Sharon Breitweiser, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming, called the bill “mean-spirited and unnecessary” and said it wouldn’t be difficult to identify, target and harass providers and patients.
“Despite the claims that these bills enhance patient protections, we’re very concerned that enforcing the new provisions could involve invasive searches of doctors’ records,” Breitweiser said.
Opponents also question how enforceable the law really is. Medical records would be needed to confirm a doctor was not reporting procedures, but patients must sign off to release such reports in most cases.
Hazy numbers across the state
Since Wyoming Board of Medicine Executive Director Kevin Bohnenblust took the helm in 2007, the agency has received no complaints related to abortion reporting, he said.
But health professionals and legislators are in “uncharted waters” trying to nail down specifics, Bohnenblust said.
“I don’t think anybody has a really good handle on the numbers,” he said. “The estimates were all over the board.”
The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization aimed at advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, reported that 120 abortions were provided in Wyoming between 2011 and 2014, though that number includes out-of-state residents who traveled to Wyoming for the procedure.
In 2014 a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that abortions in the state were less than 5 percent of the number obtained by the Guttmacher Institute.
Using data from the CDC and the Guttmacher Institute, the bill’s fiscal note estimated Wyoming physicians conduct between 120 and 155 abortions annually.
It also estimated that 30 percent of doctors won’t report — a number derived from an estimation of physicians who do not meet statutory requirements for filing death certifications.
Those numbers suggest the board could hear approximately 46 cases related to abortion reported annually.
But Bohenblust didn’t think the legislation would change much of how the Board of Medicine operates.
“We’re really still in the same position we always have been,” he said. “If there’s a complaint filed with us the board will investigate it and take a usual course of disciplinary action.
“Our board’s goal is always to get compliance,” he said. “We far prefer compliance over discipline any time.”
Gov. Mark Gordon has 15 days from the legislature’s Feb. 28 adjournment to veto or sign the bill. If he does neither, it becomes law.
A legal challenge to the bill may be on the table moving forward, but opponents say it’s too early to say for sure. They’re waiting to see Gordon’s next move.