Right-wing Wyoming House members sponsored two anti-abortion bills in 2016, but fortunately the chamber’s Republican leadership decided not to bring either one up for an introduction vote.
Both bills were killed early in the short budget session, but could easily return in 2017 depending upon legislative election results in November if the sponsors are re-elected or like-minded lawmakers replace them. If the bills are drafted again, they would only need a simple majority to be introduced during the 2017 general session instead of the two-thirds required during a budget session.
Killed were House Bill 70, sponsored by freshman Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) and House Bill 121, brought by Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette), who was also finishing his first term.
Steinmetz adamantly believes abortion is murder and opposes it with no exceptions, including rape, incest or the life of the mother.
Steinmetz tried to do two separate things with HB 70: Amend the definition of “viability” of the fetus to include the ability to feel pain; and prohibit the sale or transfer of any aborted child or cells or tissue from an aborted child for experimentation.
First, the claim by pro-lifers that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks has been disproved by scientists. Dr. Anne Davis, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center, told Salon.com, “What we know in terms of the brain and the nervous system in a fetus is that the part of the brain that perceives pain is not connected to the part of the body that receives pain signals until about 26 weeks from the last menstrual period, which is about 24 weeks from conception.”
Second, Wyoming law already prohibits “giving away a live or viable aborted child for experimentation,” but Steinmetz’s expanded restrictions were in response to the sensational but thoroughly debunked undercover videos from the “Center for Medical Progress” that were alleged to document Planned Parenthood’s practice of harvesting baby parts to be sold for profit. The bogus charge managed to get much more news coverage than the fact that events like this didn’t happen.
Clem’s HB 121 would have established additional requirements for reporting abortions and provided for the publication of a report on abortion statistics in Wyoming.
The pair of 2016 bills were the latest unsuccessful anti-abortion measures in recent years in the Wyoming Legislature.
In 2013, a House committee voted down a bill that would have made it illegal for a woman to undergo an abortion if a heartbeat had been detected in her fetus.
The House Travel Committee voted 3-6 to kill a proposed bill in 2015 that would have required a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion so a woman could have a chance to review an ultrasound image. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Reeder (R-Casper), said he hoped that viewing such an image would give a woman the chance to “see what she is carrying is not just a blob of tissue.” Travel Committee members Steinmetz and Clem joined Rep. Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) in supporting the bill.
Pro-Life groups take fight to the states
Wyoming’s pro-choice groups should keep apprised of efforts by national anti-abortion zealots to push their agenda at the state level. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had, at last count, 25 state House representatives and 13 state senators from Wyoming as members whose annual dues are paid by the state. The extreme-right, pro-corporations and anti-people ALEC works with several other groups to circulate “model bills” to states, most notably Americans United for Life. AUL has prepared 50 such bills for circulation to state lawmakers — including bills with such nefarious goals as to exclude abortion coverage from health care exchanges and to defund Planned Parenthood.
Other groups active in pushing state legislation include National Right to Life, the National Pro-Life Alliance, and the Susan B. Anthony List. The latter supports candidates who are against the freedom to choose. All should be monitored so we can identify early on any actions that could hurt the pro-choice movement in the state.
In Wyoming the WyWatch Family Values group uses answers to its right-wing questionnaire to decide which candidates it will endorse. Recognizing that Roe v. Wade upheld the constitutional right to have an abortion makes a candidate automatically ineligible to be officially endorsed by WyWatch. The group also expresses its stand on proposed legislation and actively worked on behalf of both HB 70 and HB 121 in 2016 before they were defeated.
AUL doesn’t hide the fact that it wants to chip away at abortion rights at the state level. In 2012, AUL President and CEO Charmaine Yoest said, “You don’t have to overturn Roe to actually make progress at state level. The point is to make Roe ‘crumble under its own weight and become irrelevant.'”
AUL has made clear it has Wyoming in its sights for introducing anti-abortion measures. It rates the Equality State as the 10th least restrictive state in the nation in terms of abortion laws on its books.
“Wyoming lacks many basic legal protections for human life,” AUL said in its 2015 report. “For example, Wyoming does not require informed consent for abortion, mandate minimum health and safety standards for abortion clinics, protect unborn victims of violence, or criminalize assisted suicide.” AUL has effectively put Wyoming on notice that it will try to make abortions in the state more restrictive.
But how much more restrictive can the situation become? Wyoming is one of five states that have only a single abortion provider. The other states are Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Anti-abortion groups have made attempts to target Dr. Brent Blue of Jackson, the only physician in Wyoming who does abortions as part of his family practice. Kansas-based Operation Save America (OSA) organized a protest in Jackson’s town square in 2011 because its officials said they wanted shut down Blue’s practice and make Wyoming “abortion-free.”
The protest was planned at the town square at the same time Boy Scouts were using the area to auction elk antlers they had collected. Jackson officials secured a state court order barring anti-abortion protesters from appearing on the town square, but it was never delivered to OSA. Protesters who showed up displayed photos of aborted fetuses throughout the town.
Jackson police arrested one protester, Mark Holick, as he was preaching in the square. The protesters did not leave without a prolonged court battle. Holick filed a civil rights lawsuit that the town of Jackson and the state of Wyoming eventually settled with him for $60,000 in 2014.
In a parting shot after the settlement, Holick said his case should send a message to government officials in Wyoming that the First Amendment applies to everyone, “even Christian pro-lifers.” In an unintended compliment to the town, Holick said he’s held anti-abortion protests around the country and the level of animosity he felt in Jackson was the highest he’s ever encountered.
Was his assessment of Jackson’s commitment to not let an anti-abortion group bring chaos to the town enough to keep other protesters from once again trying to run Wyoming’s only abortion provider out of town? That remains unknown, but the OAS experience and continued anti-abortion bills in the Legislature aptly demonstrate why Wyoming pro-choice leaders should pay close attention to the efforts of radical groups like OAS and AUL. The latter has helped pass more than 200 anti-abortion bills in states since 2011.
If we ignore what they’re doing, it is at the peril of Wyoming women’s right to make their own reproductive health care decisions without state government interference. We can’t count on future legislative leaders to not bring anti-abortion bills to a vote — especially if we don’t defeat some of the anti-abortion extremists that populate the state House.