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By Rebecca Kemble
The Wisconsin State Senate passed a controversial abortion measure this morning after Republican leaders abruptly called for and forced a vote after only two Senators had a chance to speak their minds on the issue.
Yesterday Senate Democrats blocked a final vote on SB 206 by objecting to suspending the rules to permit the third reading of the bill. By Senate rules that meant the vote had to be taken the next day. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) called the lawmakers back in session at 8 o’clock this morning.
Over the loud objections of Democratic senators standing to be recognized, Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) pounded his gavel over and over and screamed at them to sit down and not interrupt the roll call vote.
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), the longest-serving state legislator in the nation, called this morning’s actions by the Republicans the worst abuse of power he has experienced in his more than 50 years as a legislator.
“The Republican majority is afraid.” Risser said. “They were afraid that they would lose some of their own members who were less than enthusiastic about the measure. They were afraid that they were losing the debate publicly so they had to ram the bill though so the public wouldn’t find out what they are really up to and who they are beholden to. They’re afraid of what’s going to happen in the next election, and they should be afraid.” After the vote this morning, a friend who I shall refer to as Princess School Dropout posed the question, "Who swapped The Handmaid's Tale for Atlas Shrugged in the Republicans' playbook?" Indeed, it seems the Wisconsin GOP's ideological wires have been crossed, shorting out the libertarian strand in favor of the authoritarian. One provision of the bill mandates that a woman receive an ultrasound 24 hours before getting an abortion. It also requires that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services compile and provide a list of free ultrasound clinics to be given out by abortion providers. The bill’s author, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), was unable to provide a list of those clinics to members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Monday during the hearing on the bill, but said she would pull one together. In her remarks on the Senate floor, Lazich referred to the free clinics as “pregnancy help centers,” organizations run by religious anti-abortion groups. Yesterday’s debate on the bill lasted several hours as 15 amendments were introduced and discussed. Fourteen of them were authored by Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), who raised concerns about the free ultrasound clinics referred to in the bill and the qualification of the people who work in them.
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From an amendment requiring that health insurance providers cover ultrasounds to another requiring that the provider of the free ultrasound be a licensed medical care provider, all but two of Erpenbach’s amendments were tabled. The two that passed require that a person performing an ultrasound in a free clinic not have a record of conviction for sexual offenses, and that free ultrasound clinics make available both trans-abdominal and trans-vaginal types of ultrasound equipment. But his fears that the ultrasound providers would not give medically accurate information to a woman but instead would provide shame-based religious interpretations of the ultrasound images were fuelled by the one amendment Sen. Lazich brought to the bill. That amendment clarified that the person who performs the ultrasound and describes the image to a woman seeking an abortion does not have to be a physician, a nurse or any other kind of licensed medical care provider, but they must be “qualified” in some nebulous way. Wisconsin does not certify or regulate ultrasound technicians. Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) noted that many of the major health care provider associations in the state, including the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians and the Wisconsin Public Health Association, oppose the bill on grounds that it interferes with the physician-patient relationship, and that the mandatory ultrasound prior to an abortion is not medically accepted practice. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, which faces a 91% decrease in state aid under the proposed 2013-2015 budget, said that the provision requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles would force them to close the doors to at least one of the few remaining clinics. In a statement released today they said, “SB 206 is political interference at its worst. Politicians dictating medical procedures that go against best medical practice is the very definition of government intrusion. It’s just a thinly veiled effort to shame and coerce woman.” But medical and public health facts did not stop Sen. Lazich from claiming that the law improves the quality of health care for women. In fact, the entire justification for this bill, dubbed “Sonya’s Law,” is based on anecdotal stories of religious women who regret having had abortions.
In her highly animated statement on the floor today, which included the characterization of Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s presentation of more health care and budget facts “theatrics,” Lazich got not only her facts but her history completely wrong. “Abortions became popular in the ’60s,” she said, adding “and it was almost ‘the thing’ to do if you wanted to be a real woman.”
During a break in yesterday’s proceedings, Lazich wandered forlornly over to the press table and said, “Do you guys have any questions? I’m getting slaughtered here.” That’s because she was the only Republican senator to defend the bill on the floor. And when Democrats stood to speak, they used the words “trans-vaginal” and “vagina” as often as they could.
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Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) seemed eager to push Republican small government and misogynistic buttons: “Government can't get any bigger than finding its way into a woman's vagina. Let's maintain a shred of dignity." He went on to rub their noses in their hypocritical stance on Medicaid. “All we’re codifying is a strange, far-reaching ideology into our law. This has nothing to do with helping people. If you want to help people we should accept Medicare expansion. We are not pro-health or pro-life, we are just pro-birth.”
The only Democratic Party senator who got the chance to speak on the floor this morning was Sen. Vinehout (D-Alma). She read two letters from constituents that argued the reduction in access to abortion services and the mandatory ultrasounds would seriously impact women already in trauma after pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. Although the law exempts women who have filed a police report alleging rape or incest from the ultrasound requirement, the vast majority of such cases are not reported.
In her closing statement Sen. Vinehout referred to the law’s namesake:
“I wonder how much money Sonya makes. And I wonder if her family is eligible for health care through Medicaid. And I wonder how much child care subsidies she has if she doesn’t have the money to pay for child care. And I wonder what kind of a wage she has, Mr. President. Because those are the things that are going to make a difference. And finally, Mr. President, I wonder if she has a job. Because we know that people who have a job and a good living wage and people who have health care are not likely to get an abortion.”
Apparently, that was all Senate President Ellis could take from the other side of the aisle. No other Democratic senator got to speak on final passage of SB 206.
Yesterday Ellis, who rarely speaks as a member from the floor, complained about Democrats’ objections to Senate procedure not being followed by bringing up their dramatic flight from the state back in 2011, which deprived the Republicans of quorum and slowed down the passage of Governor Walker’s infamous union-busting bill.
Today, Ellis exhibited the exact same abuse of power and authoritarianism that caused the Democrats to take that drastic step.
Watch this 40-minute video of today’s proceedings on Wisconsin Eye. Forward to the final 4 minutes for the rousing conclusion.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.