Senator decries move to block bill loosening Wisconsin abortion law – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Posted: May 20, 2023 at 10:38 am

MADISON - The Republican author of a bill that would overhaul the state's abortion law says a Senate leader is "squashing debate" on a bill she and a group of GOP lawmakers introduced this spring that would allow doctors to provide abortions to victims of rape and incest a policy change most Wisconsin residents support.

Sen. Mary Felzkowski and more than two dozen Republican lawmakers introduced legislation in April that would create exceptions to the state's 19th-century near-total abortion ban for pregnancies resulting from sexual assault, incest and in situations when the mother is experiencing serious pregnancy complications.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers immediately said he would not sign legislation that would keep in place the state's abortion law, a move that could jeopardize a lawsuit he and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul launched in 2022 to invalidate the law that is still in court. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu also said at the time that his caucus wouldn't take a floor vote on the bill because of Evers' position.

This week, Senate President Chris Kapenga assigned the bill to a committee led by GOP Sen. Andre Jacque, who has authored dozens of bills that would restrict abortion access including one that would bar public officials from even promoting the idea of abortion.

I'm very disappointed. Very disappointed in what Sen. Kapenga did as Senate president. I think it squashes conversation. And I think it's a very sad day when he's afraid to let his duly elected members have a discussion," Felzkowski told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday.

Earlier, Felzkowski issued a public statement calling the assignment of the bill to a committee that does not oversee health issues "perplexing." Jacque heads the Senate Committee on Licensing, Constitution and Federalism.

It disappoints me that the Senate President doesnt trust his own caucus members, assigned to their committees of interest and expertise, to debate this issue fairly. Im concerned that open, honest debate is being silenced by one member of our caucus," she said.

A spokeswoman for Kapenga did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Aides to Rep. Clint Moses, who oversees a committee where the Assembly version of the bill has been assigned, did not immediately say whether Moses plans to hold a public hearing on the bill.

The move to introduce a bill that expands access to abortion by Felzkowski and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos came during a nationallyscrutinized race for a seat on the state Supreme Courtthat revolved around the future of the state's abortion ban and despite a promise from Evers to veto such legislation in order topreserve the lawsuithe launched to overturn the state's abortion law altogether.

Vos, a Republican from Rochester, said in March Republicans were moving the legislation forward anyway because hewants the state Legislature to handle abortion policyinstead of turning the state's highest court into a "super Legislature."

"I'm an optimist. I think that eventually people will realize that the right way to do it is through the traditional process, not through a super Legislature, the state Supreme Court, but hopefully the voters agree," he said before liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated conservative former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly by double digits largely on a platform of restoring abortion access in Wisconsin.

According to recent state polling by the Marquette University Law School, the vast majority of Wisconsin voters want exceptions to the state's 1849 abortion law.

The state's abortion ban wasput back into effect in 2022when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing states to set their own abortion policies. That move pushed Kaul and Evers tofile a lawsuitto overturn the law altogether.

More: Wisconsin's 1849 abortion law goes before the courts next week. Here's what happens if it is overturned.

Whether the 1849 law is enforceable is at issue in the lawsuit. Republican lawmakers, abortion opponents and conservative legal experts say the law is now in effect. But nonpartisan attorneys for the state Legislature, Democratic lawmakers, and supporters of abortion access say potential and expected legal challenges muddy the answer to the question.

Practically,abortions have not been available in Wisconsinsince the ruling given the legal uncertainty and the state ban in statute.The debate has become central to political campaigns since then, including the 2022 governor's race and the spring race for state Supreme Court.

Senate leaders' opposition to advancing the bill came as anti-abortion lobbying groups blasted the proposal from Felzkowski, Vos, and others.

Matt Sande, Pro-Life Wisconsin Legislative Director, said in March any legislation that allows abortions "is incapable of being justified."

"A vote to add more exceptions to Wisconsins abortion ban is a vote to kill more preborn babies. It is that simple," he said. "It is always and everywhere wrong, regardless of motivation or consequence. It may never be employed, even in the narrowest of circumstances, as a means to a greater end."

Under the legislation, doctors face felony charges if they perform abortions except in situations involving victims of sexual assault and incest during the first trimester of a pregnancy, when women experience an anembryonic, molar or ectopic pregnancy, and in any circumstance in which the fetus has no chance of survival, including a physical condition of the fetus that makes survival outside of the uterus impossible.

"We are empowering the moms and the fathers who are trying to have children to work with their medical providers to make sure that they have the healthiest viable baby and that mom's life is protected in the process," Felzkowski said in March at a Capitol press conference.

The bill clarifies that the law's criminal penalties don't apply to a "therapeutic abortion" that physicians believe is necessary or advised by two other physicians as necessary, to save the life of a mother, or to avoid substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the mother. Doctors also are not banned from performing abortions to remove a fetus without a heartbeat.

The state's revived abortion ban, which outlaws all abortions unless the mother will die without one, has made Wisconsin a less-attractive state to practice in the field of reproductive health, according to OB-GYN experts, potentially leading to a medical workforce less experienced at handlingmiscarriages and otherreproductive procedures.

Abortion restrictions will also have downstream effects on the states physician labor force as a whole, not only influencing where OB/GYN doctorschoose to live and workbut shaping the decisions of doctors training or practicing in other specialties, too, according to Jenny Higgins, a UW-Madison professor of obstetrics and gynecology and gender and womens studies.

Kathryn Ann Dielentheis, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Medical College of Wisconsin who practices at Froedtert Health, said earlier this year that since Roe v. Wade was overturned, she has observed some fear within the Wisconsin medical community treating pregnant women of not meeting the letter of law when making treatment decisions when patients experience complications like ectopic pregnancies.

Evers has pledged not to sign a new abortion law "that leaves Wisconsin women with fewer rights and freedoms" than before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Before then, doctors could perform abortions up until about 20 weeks of pregnancy. Evers has said he would sign a bill that puts back into effect a 20-week ban on abortions.

Vos said in March there were enough Republican votes to pass the bill out of the Assembly but it is all but certain to not get to Evers' desk with LeMahieu's promise to keep the bill off the Senate floor.

Democratic lawmakers also have rejected the idea of keeping in place the 1849 abortion law.

"I, like the majority of Wisconsinites, believe that we must repeal the state's 1849 criminal abortion ban and restore the rights, liberties, and freedoms that were afforded to women under Roe. There is absolutely no room for a politician in the doctor's office of any individual," Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madiosn, said in a statement.

Agard said Republicans "are simply flailing" after losing the 2022 governor's race and other midterm races, in part, because of their stance on abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Any legislation that does not provide a woman with autonomy of her own body and her own healthcare decisions is a nonstarter for my caucus," she said.

LeMahieu said in January he supports clarifying the law to address uncertainty on the part of doctors in situations involving complications like ectopic pregnancies, which can require abortion procedures to address before a woman's health is at risk.

Vos also previously said he would support requiring victims of rape to show doctors a police report before they could obtain an abortion but Wednesday's legislation does not include such a requirement.

Laura Schulte of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Molly Beck can be reached at

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Senator decries move to block bill loosening Wisconsin abortion law - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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