Health

Why Doctors Think Wisconsin’s Proposed 20-Week Abortion Ban Is Absurd

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

MADISON, WISCONSIN — It is painful and scary for Carly to talk openly about her abortion. But the Wisconsin native, who did not want to publish her real name, said she was moved to speak out when she learned that a bill backed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) to ban nearly all abortions after 20 weeks was advancing quickly towards passage.

Carly told ThinkProgress that she and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for 10 months, but the same day they learned they were expecting a son, they learned he would have a serious, possibly fatal heart defect.

“I was at 21 weeks and two days when we got the test results back, and it wasn’t good news,” Carly told ThinkProgress. “I was so vulnerable and just devastated. This was a baby that we desperately wanted. But we talked about it and decided that we could deal with the hospitals and all the surgeries, but could our son? Should he have to live every single day of his life in pain? I don’t think he should. What kind of a life is that?”

Carly said the decision also hinged on the wellbeing of her husband’s teenage daughter, who has several disabilities. “We also had to think about what is best for her,” she said. “She needs a lot of our attention, and she doesn’t need to watch her little brother suffer.”

Wisconsin already has many restrictions that make it difficult to get an abortion. Currently, there are only four clinics that offer abortions — meaning 95 percent of Wisconsin counties does not have one — in a state with more than a million women of reproductive age. The number of family planning clinics has been dwindling, too. Five more clinics were operating in rural areas before Gov. Scott Walker slashed funding for Planned Parenthood in his 2011 budget.

Those who can access an abortion clinic can’t use their insurance to help pay for the procedure if they’re covered on Medicaid or a subsidized federal plan under the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, they must go through a mandatory counseling session and ultrasound, then wait 24 hours before having the abortion itself — ostensibly to think harder about the decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Carly told ThinkProgress she found this waiting period burdensome and insulting. “As if I hadn’t already been thinking about it every single day, 24 hours a day, for weeks, leading up to it,” she said.

Afraid she would have to wait several more weeks to schedule the two appointments in her own state necessary to complete the counseling requirement, Carly took nearly a week off of her job in a dental lab to travel to Chicago for the procedure. She told ThinkProgress that, even though it “would have been so much more comforting to be at home during such an awful time,” she was instead forced to navigate Chicago traffic and pay for a hotel room.

Not all women in Carly’s situation are able to take off work and afford the travel costs necessary to seek an out-of-state abortion. And soon, those women may have even fewer options. On Tuesday, Wisconsin’s Senate Committee on Health and Human Services took up a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, with a vague carve-out for “medical emergencies” but no exemptions for cases of rape or incest. Governor Walker has already promised to sign the bill if it passes the legislature, despite the fact that similar laws have been struck down by courts in other states and some medical experts believe these policies lead to more, not fewer, abortions.

Tuesday’s hearing on the bill presented a microcosm of the deeply divided state, with heated rhetoric on all sides and personal attacks leveled against both the legislators and the medical experts who testified.

Defending her proposal, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) told her colleagues that “excruciating pain from dismembering a child should not be allowed.” When pressed on why the bill has no exemptions for rape and incest, Lazich shot back: “We don’t differentiate between some classes of children and other classes of children.”

Many lawmakers, including Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), raised concerns about the bill’s vague medical emergency exemption, which rests on doctors using their “best medical judgment” to decide whether they’re permitted to provide abortion care in a situation when their patient’s health is at risk.

“How exactly are you defining a medical emergency?” challenged Subeck. “Do you understand that some women do experience health complications during pregnancy that may not put their life at risk immediately but do in the long term? Would a blot clot be a medical emergency? Would preeclampsia? I’m looking for answers about real situations.”

She did not get solid answers, and Lazich admitted she consulted with lawyers but not medical professionals when crafting the bill.

Doctors would face imprisonment for the felony of violating the law, and could be taken to civil court if someone feels they have exercised “unreasonable medical judgement.”

Several medical professionals who came to the hearing to speak out against the bill blasted this provision, including Dr. Tosha Wetterneck with the Wisconsin Medical Society. Wetterneck said the proposed legislation “criminalizes a necessary and legal medical procedure, which is abhorrent.”

Wetterneck also told lawmakers that had she been consulted, she would have advised against a cutoff at 20 weeks, because it’s only then that serious medical problems like the one Carly discovered become clear.

“If ultrasounds are done earlier than 20 weeks, it’s not possible to see all the anatomy. That’s why we wait, to fully understand what is happening with the abnormalities,” she explained. “We should give doctors the chance to collect all of that information in order to make the best decision.”

The committee will vote on the bill on Thursday, and, thanks to a Republican majority, it is likely to pass. It will then go to the floor, where it is also likely to pass, and straight to the governor — who has already expressed his enthusiastic support.

Carley sees the move as a contradiction to the Governor’s rhetoric about getting government out of people’s lives.

“It’s just not right for a politician to interfere with something like this. It makes me so angry,” she said. “Our motto here in Wisconsin is supposed to be ‘Forward,’ but I feel like all we’re doing lately is moving backward. Everyone would agree that it would be wrong to force a woman to have an abortion, but somehow it’s not wrong to force her to carry a baby who is going to be born and not survive? Or even forcing an ultrasound, or all these other things. It’s the forcing that’s wrong.”

UPDATE

On Thursday, Senate committee members approved the bill, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats against it. The GOP majority rejected an amendment from Senator Jon Erpenbach, (D-Middleton) protecting abortion doctors who prioritize the life of the mother over the life of the fetus in an emergency situation. The full Senate will take up the bill next week.

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