In ten short days, Wisconsin Republicans steamrolled a radical abortion bill through the state legislature to mandate ultrasounds and close abortion clinics, despite passionate opposition from Democratic Assemblywomen. The debate had many dramatic moments and video of the Senate President furiously gaveling down the opposition made national news.
The Wisconsin bill was offered by State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) a major opponent of a woman's right to choose who during the Senate debate made the shocking claim "These abortions became popular in the '60s. It was almost the thing to do. You needed to get one of them to be a woman."
Personal, Emotional Speeches Elicit Tears on Assembly Floor
SB 206, like the controversial Virginia bill that passed last year, would legally require doctors to perform an ultrasound on women seeking abortions at least 24 hours prior to the procedure, and require the doctor to describe the features of the fetus to the woman before going forward with the abortion.
"To force a physician to recite a scripted oral description of the findings if the pregnant woman declines is abusive. The proposed requirements do not make abortion safer for women, but do create unnecessary bureaucratic barriers and add both emotional and financial stress to an already difficult decision," said the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in a statement.
While the bill does not specify that the mandatory ultrasound be transvaginal, medical professionals testified that in the first trimester (when most abortions take place), it can be difficult to detect a heartbeat with an abdominal ultrasound, thus making an invasive transvaginal ultrasound mandatory. Many lawmakers and citizens expressed concern about the adverse psychological impact of a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound, particularly for women who are seeking an abortion after being the victim of a rape or after learning that their pregnancy is not viable.
Rep. Sandy Pope told a tearful story of having to make the decision to terminate an unsuccessful pregnancy, and ended, her voice shaking, by looking across the aisle and saying "some decisions do not belong to you. You can't have them. You just can't. You can't hurt people this way... what you're doing is cruel, absolutely cruel."
Rep. Chris Taylor and Rep. Dianne Hesselbein both shared stories about the painful experience of being pregnant with twins, only to find out that one of the twins was not going to survive, and having to repeatedly view ultrasounds with images of their healthy unborn child along with the child that would not survive.
The bill states that a woman who is the victim of rape or incest is exempt from the mandatory ultrasound, but only if she reported the incident to the police. One in seven women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and an overwhelming 81 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.
Rep. Mandy Wright described being raped when she was 8 years old by her cousin, but the sensitive situation was not reported to the police. She said even many of her friends did not know the story. Republicans nonetheless rejected an amendment to eliminate the reporting requirement.
Rep. Katrina Shankland expressed in a frustrated tone "instead of having women at the table, you have us on the menu."
Bill Would Close Planned Parenthood Clinics
SB 206 also contains a provision requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, an onerous provision for clinics located in less-populated areas of this mostly rural state. Opponents see the provision as a blatant attempt to close a Planned Parenthood facility in Appleton, the only abortion clinic in Wisconsin outside of Madison and Milwaukee. Similar admitting privileges requirements were recently passed in Mississippi and Alabama. In Mississippi the bill would have closed the state's only abortion clinic, and both bills are currently being challenged in court.
On the same day SB 206 passed, two other bills addressing women's reproductive health were passed through the Assembly, largely overshadowed by the response to the mandatory ultrasound bill. AB 216, prohibiting Wisconsin's state health program from covering abortions and allowing religious organizations to deny contraception coverage, and AB 217 prohibiting sex-selective abortions both passed on party line votes.
Republicans Gavel Down Debate and Reject All Amendments
The Senate debate on Wednesday was marked by many dramatic moments, including a near-hysterical outburst by Senate President Mike Ellis as the vote was taken. Ellis is considered a moderate on many issues, yet may face a Tea Party primary in his reelection in 2014.
In the Assembly, thirteen amendments offered by Democrats had to be formulated quickly, with only a day between the Senate's passage of the bill and the Assembly taking it up. Most were simple additional requirements or exemptions.
In addition to the amendment ensuring that no woman would be physically forced to have an ultrasound, Democrats proposed an amendment requiring that ultrasound technicians be properly trained, that a licensed doctor read the ultrasound, that the mandated ultrasounds be covered by health insurance, a requirement of informed consent for patients, an exception for women whose fetuses have characteristics incompatible with life, and an exception for women who simply state that they have been victims of rape or incest.
Many of these amendments were introduced to address issues that Democrats felt were overlooked in the rush to pass the bill. Veteran Representative Fred Kessler said "this is the most loosely written bill I've ever seen." The Republican majority nonetheless voted unanimously to table all thirteen amendments.
Protesters Share Personal Stories
Because the bill was rushed through the legislature -- introduced on June 4, passing the Senate on June 12 and the Assembly on June 13 -- opponents didn't have much time to hear about the bill, let alone provide input or coordinate opposition. The bill had its one and only public hearing less than 48 hours after it was introduced.
Talia Froulkis quickly organized a noon rally outside the Capitol after hearing the bill passed the Senate, "I was livid," she said. "I decided to do this because I am a victim of rape, I'm a survivor of rape, and I've had to seek an abortion in my past because of that rape. If I had to have a transvaginal ultrasound I'm sure I would have felt too violated and traumatized to actually go through with the abortion that I needed because I was 16."
In addition to the rally outside, others participated in a silent protest inside the Assembly gallery. Wendi Kent, a mother who gave birth to her third daughter less than two weeks ago, came to the Capitol with her infant in her arms and duct tape over her own mouth to represent how women were being silenced.
"Legislators are making decisions that hurt me, my daughters and all other Wisconsin women. We are being silenced. We are being ignored," she said.
When debate in the Assembly began at 1pm a few dozen people sat in the gallery, many of them with tape over their mouths. They were quickly told by the Sergeant-at-Arms that they were breaking the rules of the gallery, and had to remove the tape from their mouths. Many removed the tape only to place their hands over their mouths instead.
Governor Scott Walker has indicated that he is eager to sign SB 206 into law.
"I don't have any problem with ultrasound," he told the Associated Press. "I think most people think ultrasounds are just fine."