Reverberations of Handmaid’s Tale in the Assembly health committee

Legislative debate goes beyond abortion into contraception, freedom, privacy — and respect

By: - October 20, 2021 6:58 am
Protesters against abortion bans march in St. Paul, including one dressed up as a Handmaid

Stop Abortion Bans rally | Photo by Lorie Shaull via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The national clash over the right to have an abortion is largely focused on the U.S. Supreme Court and what would happen if  Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Meanwhile Republicans in Wisconsin have made abortion a focus of the fall session, even though Gov. Tony Evers will never allow their anti-abortion bills to become law. In fact, most of the bills are replicas of ones he already vetoed two years ago.

These Republican bills — passed by the Assembly Committee on Health on Tuesday and some set to be voted on in the Senate on Wednesday — to control women’s reproductive health care feature increasingly intrusive measures. They make medicine abortions more difficult, dramatically increase public reporting requirements and force doctors to relay information written by the Legislature, much of which is medically inaccurate. Other bills featured inflammatory language such as the ‘born alive’ bill that would charge health care workers with a felony if they do not take life-saving measures in the extremely rare circumstance that an abortion results in a live birth.

Collectively the bills do more than hinder abortion. Most procedural hurdles have already been put in place in Wisconsin. New bills add burdens that infringe on personal and medical privacy, coming precariously close to a Handmaid’s Tale story line that elevates a woman’s pregnancy above her humanity.

Rep. Lisa Subeck

“It feels like pure political theater because every time we go through this, it just gets wilder and wilder, the assertions that are made by folks who are testifying or by authors of bills,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison). “It’s making women, yet again, political pawns in a cruel political game.”

Among the most extreme member of the health committee on abortion, Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego), authored amendments that were not taken up, to make sure there were no exceptions for victims of rape, incest or the life or health of the pregnant woman. He voted against the ‘born-alive’ bill, saying the woman was getting away with murder if only the doctor was punished: “I did author an amendment to remove immunity to the mother, if she is a co-conspirator to the death of the child. And I think that would make the bill a great bill.”

Legislators play doctor

Another GOP bill would ban sex-selective abortions, something there is no indication, let alone proof, that women are opting to have. Even what seemed like a bipartisan moment stepping away from the topic of abortion to permit pharmacists to prescribe birth control pills and patches, caused an objection.

“What is contraception? It is the opposite of conception,” declared Wichgers. He acknowledged allowing pharmacists to prescribe contraception was being done due to healthcare-worker shortages, but said he found that counterintuitive. “So because we lack people we’re going to increase access to something that creates an opportunity for less people?”

“It’s making women, yet again, political pawns in a cruel political game.”

– Rep. Lisa Subeck

While the authors of the birth-control bill are Republicans — Wichgers chastised any fellow GOP colleagues who support it, repeatedly calling it a “Democrat bill” and adding, “I think it is the opposite of what we should be doing, and if we were to give access to the anything, it shouldn’t be the pill, it should be heart medication, diabetes medication, something that is of greater value to the whole of the community. This is not a bill that Republicans should be voting for. This is a bad day.”

Rep. Chuck Wichgers
Rep. Chuck Wichgers

Subeck, the ranking Democrat on the committee, responded, “Rep. Wichgers was dangerously close, I think, to implying that those of us who can get pregnant and have children should, in order to fit some sort of mission of populating … If it is a Democratic idea that individuals, particularly women in this case, should have the freedom to be able to determine their own destiny by determining when they get pregnant and have children, I’m proud to be a Democrat.”

Expanding access to contraceptives, said Subeck, should get unanimous support.

“This bill will do more to prevent abortion than all of those bills put together,” she said, referencing the six abortion bills on the agenda. “There will always be a need for abortion, but you can significantly reduce that by reducing or eliminating the number of unintended pregnancies.”

Wichgers responded arguing that birth control is not safe or moral, and also constitutes an abortion.

Other measures that passed included expanded reporting requirements for abortions, requiring in addition to the current demographic information filed with the state Department of Health Services that medical facilities. AB 262 adds name of facility, the sex of aborted child if determinable, the payment source, number of previous abortions and reason for the abortion, type of contraceptive use before the pregnancy, any “born-alive” response actions, the disposition of remains and information on the physicians’ history.

It would also require that for any abortion via medication, doctors would be forced to tell patients having a medication abortion that the process is safely reversible in between pills taken (mifepristone and misoprostol) sometimes days apart, which is not supported by scientific or medical evidence.

The Assembly Committee on Health meeting 10/19/21 | WisEye

“I’m frustrated by all these bills, as you know, but to me this one is just so patently absurd,” said Subeck. “We should not be playing doctor. Far too many times the politicians are trying to put themselves in the doctor’s office and make these decisions for people. In this case, doing it in probably one of the worst and most despicable ways possible: by promoting and forcing physicians to give misinformation.”

In the end, the health committee approved pharmacists prescribing birth control for adults who pass screening and blood-pressure tests and approved all of the anti-abortion bills, with disagreement among Republicans only on the topic of whether or not there should be exceptions for victims of rape and incest or threats to the health or life of the pregnant woman.

Many of the anti-abortion bills will be voted on by the full Senate during its Wednesday session, and are expected to easily pass along partisan lines before moving along to the Assembly, where Speaker Robin Vos will likely declare it the theme of a certain session day.

“One of the reasons that I ran for office was to protect the lives of unborn children,” Vos told his constituents in his newsletter last week. “I’m proudly pro-life and believe Republicans have done a great job advancing the pro-life movement in Wisconsin over the last ten years. We can’t and won’t allow anything to get in the way of our efforts to protect innocent lives.”

RESPECT women and doctors

Three Democratic legislators — Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) and Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) — responded to the fleet of GOP anti-abortion bills and the negative implications they promote about women making decisions by introducing two bills they dubbed, ‘The Respect Act.’

One would guarantee the right to have an abortion in Wisconsin, regardless of Roe v. Wade. The other would eliminate a raft of Republican laws that have made obtaining an abortion more difficult, costly, dangerous or impossible for some.

“The right to choose is non-negotiable. Bodily autonomy is as fundamental to the human experience as is the right to breathe,” Hong said.

After eight years of full Republican control of the executive and legislative branches, which ended with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers taking office in 2019, many new laws put hurdles and restrictions on abortion. Under Wisconsin law, abortion is treated differently from other medical procedures even though the rules are not based in science or best medical practices. That would change under the Respect Act.


“The RESPECT Act protects Wisconsinites’ fundamental right to medically accurate information,” said Johnson in a statement on the bills. “There is no reason that patients should have to endure intimidation and political interference when it comes to accessing reproductive health care. It’s time to put health care decisions back in the hands of patients and their doctors by removing these politically driven and unnecessary restrictions.”

Under current law a woman’s “consent” to an abortion is only considered “informed” if she has been given specific information orally, in person, along with set written materials. She can only receive an abortion-inducing pill after a physical exam is performed by the same physician prescribing the drug and the doctor must me physically present in the room when it is given. And she must wait 24 hours between the counseling and the procedure.

Sen. Kelda Roys 2021 head shot
Sen. Kelda Roys

Those laws would be changed

The bill eliminates prohibitions on abortion coverage in state health plans. It gets rid of requiring a physician to have admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion (currently unenforceable, see side bar). It also repeals the fine and imprisonment for performing an abortion that remains on the books in Wisconsin.

“We all have the right to autonomy over our own body and life,” said Roys. “For too long, anti-choice legislators and judges have forced their narrow values on the rest of us, making it as difficult and expensive as possible to receive abortion care.”

Roys added that the RESPECT bill “restores access to abortion care and demands that patients receive the same high standard of care and honesty that they would in any other medical setting.”

How Wisconsin stacks up on abortion

Absent Roe, Wisconsin would revert to an 1849 ban on abortion, charging doctors with a felony for performing one. That makes Wisconsin among the most extreme states on reproductive health, but even setting that aside, Wisconsin is one of 24 states ranked by the Center for Reproductive Rights as “hostile” toward abortion. The pro-choice group defined “hostile” as a state that immediately (like Wisconsin) or very quickly could prohibit abortion if Roe was overturned. Wisconsin is one of just eight states with a ban already on the books from before the Roe ruling in 1973.

On the other end of the spectrum, twelve states protect the right to an abortion until fetal viability and two states (Vermont and Oregon) and Washington D.C. permit abortion throughout pregnancy.

How do Wisconsin laws on abortion stack up against other states?

States have implemented three types of common bans on abortion. Pre-viability gestational bans are on the books in 24 states including Wisconsin, but are unenforceable due to Roe. Method of abortion bans, typically dilation and extraction procedures, are banned in 31 states including Wisconsin. “Reason” bans prohibit choosing to have an abortion due to the sex, race or a genetic anomaly. One such bill is currently moving through the Legislature in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin has an unconstitutional and unenforceable ban that outlaws abortion procedures as early as 12 weeks. Wisconsin’s law makes any abortion procedure that falls within a broad definition a felony, unless necessary to preserve the life of a woman,” NARAL states. The group also points out that “Wisconsin outlaws abortion after 20 weeks with no exception for when pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, for cases of fetal anomaly, or when a woman’s health is at risk.”

In addition to bans, there is a range of laws that apply only to medical personnel who perform abortions, but not other health care professionals. In Wisconsin, only a physician can perform an abortion. Targeted regulation of abortion providers or “TRAP” laws, which do not increase patient safety and are counter to clinical guidelines are in place Wisconsin requiring a hospital to be nearby and that the doctor has admitting privileges there. (These laws are currently unenforceable.)

Parental involvement for minors is the law in 14 states where parents must be notified, and another 30, including Wisconsin, where parents must give their consent.

Wisconsin requires that a patient receiving an abortion be given counseling that the Center for Reproductive Rights labels as “biased,” as do 29 other states. Wisconsin is one of 32 states with a waiting period between seeking and receiving an abortion, and one of 12 states mandating an ultrasound.

“The political games being played with the health and lives of Wisconsinites should be considered legislative malpractice,” said Sara Finger, founder and head of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health. “As our leaders refuse to listen to the medical experts, the evidence and the cries of patients to determine their own futures, we must speak out.”



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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.