Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) signed legislation Monday outlawing abortion for mothers at or over 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The bill, which the governor had said he would sign shortly after he declared his run for the presidency, would make performing an abortion at or beyond 20 weeks a felony, carrying a sentence of up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Abortion has been restricted in Wisconsin before. Two years ago, Walker signed a bill that not only mandated that women have an ultrasound before an abortion, but required doctors who performed the procedure to have hospital admitting privileges. Immediately, the state’s two abortion providers, Planned Parenthood and Affiliated Medical Services, sued in federal court, where the measure was blocked. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled that the requirement was unconstitutional. The ruling is now being appealed by a Republican attorney general.
Other states have seen similar actions. Courts have blocked various bans and requirements in Georgia, Arizona, Idaho, Alabama, and Mississippi, with other states enmeshed in litigation. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, allows states to “restrict the procedures after the fetus reaches viability, the point where it could survive outside the womb,” according to the Associated Press.
So what’s the viable limit? Well, that’s tricky. The Supreme Court defined it as:
When, in the judgment of the attending physician on the particular facts of the case before him, there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus’ sustained survival outside the womb, with or without artificial support. Because this point may differ with each pregnancy, neither the legislature nor the courts may proclaim one of the elements entering into the ascertainment of viability—be it weeks of gestation or fetal weight or any other single factor—as the determinant.
That threshold has hovered roughly in the range of 22 to 24 weeks after conception, but without a single, definitive standard, politicians and policymakers have wide latitude in interpreting that statement. Walker and supporters of the measure claim that’s it’s about protection: “At five months, that’s the time when that unborn child can feel pain,” Walker said at the signing. “When an unborn child can feel pain, we should be protecting that child.”
Aside from the fact that Walker used the word “child” in place of “fetus,” the medical establishment (which includes the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and its U.K. counterpart) has concluded that a fetus — yes, a fetus, not a child — doesn’t feel pain at 20 weeks. That’s also what the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded after a systemic overview of evidence. In fact, the professor of pediatrics who at first advanced the theory that pain could occur in a fetus that young (though he noted that it would be felt differently from how adults experience pain) has said that the issue is complex and has little relevance in the case of abortion, “since most abortions are performed before the fetus is capable of experiencing pain.” He refuses to testify in court, claiming that his work is being politicized.
Despite only a tiny percentage of abortions in Wisconsin — or nationwide — occurring past the 20-week mark, the measure is considered to be another knock against women’s rights. Already, women in Wisconsin are required to have state-directed counseling at least 24 hours before the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan reproductive rights and health organization. Counseling also has to be done in person and is designed to discourage the woman from having an abortion.
This bill also does not allow exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or the health of the pregnant woman. When abortions are carried out at this mark, they are often done because the fetus is discovered to have genetic defects.
“Families who experience a pregnancy that has gone tragically wrong deserve help from doctors and access to needed health care without interference from politicians. The medical community uniformly opposes this bill because it prevents physicians from providing individualized care to patients based on their own medical circumstances,” said Nicole Safar of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Walker’s conservative policies have garnered the ire of many of his constituents, leading to a recall election in 2012, which he won. Although he has long been against abortion, in a campaign ad that ran last fall, he said, “I support legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options. The bill [referring to the 2013 piece of legislation he signed] leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor. …Our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsin citizens.”
“The truth is that Scott Walker lied to Wisconsin voters when he was elected governor after saying that abortion is between a woman and her doctor,” said Sasha Bruce with abortion rights advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America to the Associated Press. “Now, in an effort to win the votes of the extreme base of the Republican Party, Walker has traded the health and well-being of women and families to score cheap political points.”
According to the Journal-Sentinel, it’s likely that the federal court could get involved. Walker said he’s confident that the ban will be upheld.
PolitFact has rated his views on abortion as more restrictive than those of recent Republican presidents. In the past four years, since Republicans took over Congress and many state legislatures, abortion has been severely restricted in several states, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Walker may be extreme, but he is hardly unique.
Photo: It’s often a tough decision to abort. Wisconsin, due to Gov. Scott Walker’s signing of a new law restricting abortions after 20 weeks, can make that decision harder. Tacoma Cartoonist/Flickr