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By Rebecca Kemble
The Wisconsin State Senate Committee on Health and Human Services voted another abortion bill out of committee today. After a party line vote of 3-2, SB 206, the mandatory ultrasound measure, now heads for the Senate floor.
Under Wisconsin's informed consent abortion law passed last year, a woman seeking an abortion must give "voluntary and informed consent" 24 hours before the procedure. The physician performing the abortion must verify that her consent is not coerced by meeting with her without anyone else present. Her consent is considered "informed" only after having received information about alternatives to abortion.
The new bill is similar to the controversial law passed last year in Virginia and stipulates that the information given to a woman a day in advance of the procedure must include results of an ultrasound.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, over the past two decades twenty-one states have passed laws mandating physicians to provide some form of access to ultrasounds as a precondition for performing an abortion. If passed, SB 206 would combine multiple requirements to make it one of the most restrictive and punitive laws of its kind. Under penalties of up to $10,000 in fines for failure to do so, a physician performing the ultrasound must verbally describe the number of “unborn children” present in the image, the location of the fetus or fetuses within the woman’s uterus, and provide a medical description of the dimensions and visible characteristics of the fetus. They must also provide a means for the woman to visualize the heartbeat of the fetus, if one is detectable by the type of ultrasound chosen by the woman. In a hearing on the bill last week, opponents said the requirement for visualizing the fetal heartbeat was tantamount to requiring women in their first trimester of pregnancy to submit themselves to an invasive trans-vaginal procedure since a fetal heartbeat is not necessarily detectable that early by means of an abdominal ultrasound. An amendment to the Senate version of the bill passed today should put those fears to rest. Today’s committee meeting was delayed by 45 minutes so that the amendment could be drafted. It specifies that “the means to visualize any fetal heartbeat must be provided if a heartbeat is detectable by the ultrasound transducer type chosen by the woman.” In other words, if a woman chooses to have an abdominal ultrasound before a heartbeat is detectable by those means, the requirement of the law is still satisfied, and a trans-vaginal ultrasound is not required. Committee Chair Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) apologized for breaking protocol by the delay and the last minute introduction of the amendment. Vukmir is the national treasurer for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and has served as the co-chair for its Health and Human Services Task Force. She has recently come under fire for failing to comply with a public records request by the Center for Media and Democracy seeking ALEC-related communications.
The amendment was unanimously approved. However, Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) commented: “Taking an extremely bad part of the legislation and making it better by no means reflects how I feel about the bill.”
Erpenbach raised concerns about other provisions of SB 206 that construct more obstacles for women seeking abortions in Wisconsin. He pointed out that the mandatory ultrasounds cost anywhere between $400 and $1,200, and that the bill does not mandate health insurance providers to cover those costs. He also noted that the bill does not include provisions for transportation or lodging for women who may have to travel hundreds of miles and stay overnight near one of the few remaining Wisconsin clinics that provide abortion services. When viewed in light of other “religious freedom” bills making their way through the legislature that allow medical care providers to refuse to perform abortions or dispense contraceptives based on religious views, mandatory ultrasounds may represent yet one more dead end in the increasingly complicated maze a woman must navigate in order to obtain an abortion in the state.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.