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Lengthy, Heated Debate Over Bill that Would Restrict Abortions in Wisconsin

Wisconsin's State Capitol
Ann Althouse, Flickr

The spotlight at the state Capitol was not on the next state budget Tuesday, but rather on abortion.

Legislators listened to hours of testimony on a fast-tracked abortion bill. It would ban the procedure, in almost all cases, after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Any doctors who violate the law could be charged with a felony and sent to prison.

The focus of the debate centered on when a fetus is capable of experiencing pain. Each side came armed with studies. Republican Sen. Mary Lazich of New Berlin is one of the bill’s sponsors. She insists 20 weeks should be the threshold for banning abortion.

“Technology affords the public information that requires us to confront the fact an unborn baby is in fact human, and that while small and defenseless, the human baby experiences pain,” Lazich said.

West Allis GOP Rep. Joe Sanfelippo echoed Lazich’s concerns.

“Once the baby is five months old, medical science shows that the baby can feel pain and what this bill is saying is we’re not going to allow that torture. It’s inhumane,” Sanfelippo said.

The bill’s supporters say they can point to numerous reports from fetal surgeons and anesthesiologists, proving fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks. Dr. Tasha Wetterneck of Madison disagrees. She says she’s speaking on behalf of the Wisconsin Medical Society when insisting fetuses are not developed enough at 20 weeks to perceive pain.

“It’s based on systematic reviews of all of the information there. Individual physicians can have their individual opinions. We don’t always let these guide practice when there’s medically accurate information overwhelming that should guide practice,” Wetterneck says.

Those testifying at Tuesday’s public hearing also disagree over what exceptions should be included in the proposed law. For instance, it requires abortions for rape or incest to be performed before 20 weeks of pregnancy. The only reason a doctor could terminate a pregnancy later is if the woman is experiencing a medical emergency. In those cases, the physician would have to do so, in a manner that gives the fetus the best chance for survival. Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton pressed Sen. Lazich for clarification.

Sen. Erpenbach: “If the doctor only has the option to save one, which is it going to be, according to this law?”

Sen. Lazich: “According to this law, they must use reasonable medical judgment.”

Erpenbach: “And if the doctor in ‘reasonable medical judgment’ only can deal with one life -- mother or fetus -- which one under this legislation would it be?”

Lazich: “That again, the physician has to exercise reasonable medical judgment, no matter what the setting is.”

Erpenbach: “In your opinion, which is more important, the mother or the fetus?”

Lazich: “In my opinion, the physician exercising reasonable medical judgment is the most important.”

Critics also demanded exceptions for cases when the mother learns at 20 weeks or later that there are serious problems with the fetus. A woman who ended her pregnancy after tests revealed a deadly tumor urged lawmakers to back off, saying: “You didn’t have to give birth to this baby, I did. Had he been born alive, you would not have been the ones to have to watch him suffer and gasp for his last breaths. I would have. You did not have to bury him. I did.”

A Senate committee is expected to vote on the bill Thursday. Proponents hope it’s ready for Gov. Scott Walker this summer. He has said he would sign the measure into law.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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