Wyoming Legislature

Casper-Star Tribune

Four bills to restrict abortion, including one to outlaw the procedure after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, will advance for a floor debate as the Wyoming Legislature works through the final weeks of the legislative session.

The Legislature’s House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee moved all four bills last week by the same 7-2 margin. The no votes came from the two committee Democrats, Reps. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, and Andy Clifford, D-Fort Washakie. The nine-person committee is unique in the overwhelmingly male Legislature in that five out of nine seats are filled by women.

The lawmakers heard varied testimony on the proposals, including from a number of doctors who opposed the legislation. That testimony came in addition to the standard remarks from pro-life and pro-choice activists.

The committee members themselves did not aggressively debate the bills. Committee chair Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, set an agenda and kept the discussion paced accordingly.

The four different bills included a proposal to restrict University of Wyoming student health insurance to be used for abortions and a bill to outlaw “discriminatory” abortions — defined in the legislation as being performed because a child is expected to have a disability, or be born a certain gender or race.

A bill that would require physicians to provide certain information when asked to perform an abortion, and a bill outlawing the procedure after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — typically between 5 and 6 weeks — were also on the agenda.

Wyoming is being asked to take a position: Some argue it’s a pro-life state and legislators should codify that value into law. Others say legislating reproduction is antithetical to the state’s small-government ethos.

It’s a question coming up in state legislatures across the U.S.

More than 250 laws have been passed limiting abortion between 2017 and 2020, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, and covered by U.S. News and World Report.

Wyoming has consistently wrestled with this question. In 2019, the state outlawed abortions after viability, which statute defines as when the fetus can live outside the mother’s womb — at roughly 24 weeks. No state funds can be expended on abortion. And there are strict record-keeping rules regarding the relatively infrequent procedures.

But lawmakers defeated a heartbeat bill last session. And Wyoming has less restrictions than most states, according to an analysis from the international reproductive health advocacy group, the Guttmacher Institute.

This session may change that. Half a dozen bills dealing with abortion are under consideration by lawmakers.

Earlier this session, a bill advanced to outlaw medications used for early-term abortions, which physicians have testified would eliminate all of the procedures in the state.

Not many abortions are performed in Wyoming. The procedure is only available in Jackson, and up until recently, just one physician was performing them. An estimated 62 abortions were completed in the state in 2019. All used medication, according to a report from the Wyoming Department of Health.

But several legislators and other advocates of the legislation said the question is about what values Wyoming chooses to reflect.

“To me it boils down to one very simple question, is this what we’re talking about a human being or not?” Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, said in advocating for Rep. Chuck Gray’s “heartbeat protection act.”

The legislator continued by saying he viewed the issue through his background in agriculture, and then explained how a calf is determined viable.

Committee member Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, replied to that analogy in blunt terms.

“I am one of those people who really do not want to be compared to a cow,” she said. “you just compared a woman, her uterus, the choices that she makes, with a cow. Please don’t do that.”

Testifying in favor of a bill to limit a student’s ability to use university health insurance for abortions, president of Right to Life Wyoming Marti Halverson said, “Wyoming is a pro-life state, and that should extend to our state institutions.”

Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, has made similar comments. Introducing a bill to outlaw medication abortions last week, he said, “Throughout this country, even in our own state, we have public policy on what we as a society are going to allow within the framework of the right to have an abortion in this country.”

He continued, “I believe we as a state in Wyoming have a responsibility to also decide not only what we will and will not allow in the procedures of how you have an abortion, but also what procedures are either dangerous or gruesome.”

But those against the range of legislation, particularly doctors, say the laws could have unintended consequences.

“I think we all agree fewer desired abortions is a good thing, and unfortunately restrictions on abortion have not been shown to reduce demand,” Jackson-based Dr. Katie Noyes told a committee last week while testifying against a bill to outlaw medication abortions.

Noyes said she was worried about what the legislation would do to poor and rural women who would have a harder time traveling to access care outside of the state.

“Let’s protect the Wyoming women we can see and hear and can tell their stories, let’s protect their existing children and their existing families,” she said.

She referenced the Turnaway Study, which looks at how limiting access to abortion can negatively affect the health of women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term because of a lack of medical access.

Led by University of California San Francisco researchers, the study found women unable to access a wanted abortion were four times more likely to make less income than the federal poverty level. The study also concluded those women were more likely to suffer from mental illness and more likely to stay with abusive partners.

Sheridan-based OBGYN Rebecca Franklund told the committee Wednesday that the heartbeat bill particularly could make it difficult to provide life-saving services if a pregnant woman is in a life-threatening, but statutorily vague, situation.

Franklund also raised a concern other doctors have brought to the Legislature: Laws like these might make it harder to attract physicians to the state because of fear they might be accused of violating an ambiguous law.

“And finding physicians to work in Wyoming is hard,” Franklund said.

“I think we all agree fewer desired abortions is a good thing, and unfortunately restrictions on abortion have not been shown to reduce demand.” – Jackson-based DR. KATIE NOYES

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