I hadn’t been to an abortion hearing for awhile, and my timing was totally off on this one. It was held a week ago in the largest meeting room in the Jonah Business Center, the sterile office building that will serve as the temporary Capitol until the real one opens again.
With about 60 uncomfortable wooden chairs and the controversial nature of the topic, I figured I’d better arrive at least half-an-hour early so I could snag one. It beats standing. When I arrived 40 minutes early, I could see I blew it. Every chair was either taken or being saved for someone, which should be against the rules unless I’m the one who’s the beneficiary of the saving.
People stood in the doorway, with several others lurking behind them. All peered in to search for that elusive seat.
The House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee had anticipated the large crowd, so it reserved a room next door where people could hear the audio, which was being streamed both there and across the state. But if you’re a journalist you can’t sit in another room; you have to be where you can pick up the vibe, feel the tension and get a sense of how the committee is reacting to what they’re hearing from the masses.
So I chose a place behind the panel members where I figured the people in charge of the room wouldn’t mind if I sat on the floor with my laptop and tape recorder. Sometimes you can get away with this and not be kicked out for failing to land in an officially sanctioned spot. This was one of those times.
A few hours into the hearing I knew I had made a mistake. My back and my legs were aching, but they really would have rebelled if I had tried to stand up for so long. The idea of sitting in a comfy chair in another room listening to 100 pro-choice and anti-abortion people testify didn’t sound too bad. I decided that soaking up the atmosphere is overrated.
My body, if not my mind, persevered. Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) was working overtime to make sure everyone had a chance to express their opinion. As several people noted, this is what democracy looks like.
There was a definite pattern that emerged. Some speakers on both sides came prepared with volumes of notes and facts they hurried to squeeze in before their time expired. Others simply urged the committee to vote for or against all three anti-abortion bills.
Supporters of House Bill 116 asked legislators to recognize that unborn babies, as the right wing calls fetuses, can feel pain earlier than scientists believe. They said the state shouldn’t allow abortions after the 20th week of gestation. Wyoming is one of 26 states that define viability as between 24 and 26 weeks.
The second part of the bill bought into a story that made “pro-lifers” apoplectic last year — Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue and body parts for a profit. Bill supporters wanted to make sure that couldn’t happen in Wyoming. They ignored the most important part of the scandalous story: it wasn’t true, as many fact-checkers have declared.
Sponsors of HB 132 want to put some teeth into an existing law that says physicians in Wyoming must report all abortions performed to the state. There are two reasons why this bill should be defeated. First, the punishment for repeat offenders who won’t file reports is outrageous, including up to a year in prison. That would make a great advertising campaign to recruit doctors to a state that desperately needs more physicians. Come to Wyoming, where performing a legal medical procedure could put you in the slammer!
Second, there were only about 20 abortions performed in Wyoming last year, all at two Teton County clinics. There’s no mystery where to find the pertinent information about them. There is no problem that needs a ham-fisted legislative response.
The final proposal, HB 182, is a favorite of conservative groups that provide state legislators with model bills to promote their agenda. It would allow clinics to offer free ultrasounds to pregnant women who have already decided to have an abortion. Their hope is that after they see an image of the fetus and perhaps hear a heartbeat they will change their minds and keep their baby, or at least give it up for adoption.
This is all done under the guise of simply giving women more information about their bodies and the abortion procedure so they can make an “informed choice.” But pregnant women know what’s happening with their bodies and they don’t need a bunch of legislators — especially male ones — to interfere with what should be a private decision made in consultation with her doctor.
We’re living in super-charged political times under the presidency of Donald Trump. I’m cynical enough to believe the worst may still be coming. I hope it’s not the end times, though some days it seems like there is enough weirdness in today’s to push us all over the edge.
No, what I learned at the Labor Committee’s hearing on abortion is that while the arguments are about the same as they’ve always been, there’s more passion on both sides than I recall in past sessions. There seems to be a recognition that whatever happens, the winds are shifting. The anti-abortion movement recognizes that politically the country is moving further right under Trump than most people could have imagined before the election, and that their victory, if not close, can at least be seen on the horizon.
Trump said during his campaign that overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion would be a litmus test for his Supreme Court nominees. If the ruling isn’t seriously challenged with his current appointment of a justice, it definitely will be if he gets to make a second.
So there seemed to be a parallel urgency at last week’s Cheyenne hearing for pro-choice supporters who know they need to make their case now and mobilize the troops. The Women’s March on Washington was a good start, as were the smaller marches in Wyoming and the rest of the country. It’s a simple concept: Do nothing of substance now and the privacy right recognized by the majority in Roe v. Wade may disappear.
By my count, 71 people testified in favor of the Wyoming anti-abortion bills and only 30 opposed the package. Among the state population as a whole, I think the division is much more close, but the majority would favor a woman’s right to privacy.
Legislators who might still be undecided could be swayed by the sheer volume of support and energy the right-to-life movement demonstrated. After nearly a five-hour hearing, the Labor Committee approved each of the bills on a 6-3 vote. House Bill 132 was set back and its changes absorbed by a clean-up bill on abortion laws, House Bill 250.
After overwhelmingly approving them last Friday, the House sent all three bills to the Senate. Anyone who is frightened by the thought that the bills I described above could become Wyoming laws better have their game face on when the Senate holds its own hearing.
I’ll be there, only this time I plan to be much, much earlier. I may even bring my own comfy chair.