Welcome to the Wyoming Legislature, where no bad idea ever seems to die. It may hibernate for a few years, but don’t be fooled: It’s bound to spring back to life and dare a new batch of lawmakers to squash it again.
Case in point: Senate File 131 – Human heartbeat protection act. This piece of legislation is the most extreme anti-abortion measure considered by lawmakers since an almost identical bill was defeated in 2013. It would ban all abortions after an embryo or fetus has a “detectable fetal heartbeat.”
That qualifier has been the subject of debate for several decades, morphing into one of the nation’s most controversial political arguments. It will take center stage later this week in Wyoming on the heels of the Senate’s 20-10 approval of SF 131 — the exact two-thirds margin the bill needed to be considered during the budget session.
Policymakers will face the decision to base state laws governing women’s reproductive rights on one of two things: emotion or scientific facts. The latter prevailed for nearly three decades, but the tide is turning in a Legislature that keeps shifting to the far right.
The bill’s supporters say a fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks after conception. But at that stage of embryonic development, opponents note, many women don’t even know they are pregnant. Sharon Breitweiser, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming, says if SF 131 becomes law it would effectively ban all abortions in the state.
Does the bill violate the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that determined women have the fundamental right to choose to have an abortion during the first trimester of their pregnancy — approximately 12 weeks?
Yes, it unquestionably does — and that’s precisely why these extreme anti-abortion bills are being sponsored in conservative states like Wyoming. Proponents are not content to erode abortion rights in incremental measures state by state. They are hoping to use passage of such legislation as the catalyst to overturn Roe V. Wade in its entirety.
In 2013, thanks to the wisdom of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, Wyoming’s first heartbeat bill was rejected by a 4-5 vote. While the issue left the halls of the Capitol building, it didn’t disappear. That same year, North Dakota and Arkansas passed heartbeat abortion bans that were overturned by a federal court in 2015.
In 2019, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio all approved similar fetal heartbeat bills. Federal courts have temporarily blocked those laws from being enacted, along with ones passed by Kentucky and Mississippi. Iowa’s law was struck down by a state court.
But the same goal is shared by proponents in all these states: That sooner or later one of those court decisions will be successfully appealed to the Supreme Court. With a conservative 5-4 majority on the high court, the future of Roe hangs in the balance. Will SCOTUS make a political decision, or base its eventual ruling on the precedence its justices set nearly 50 years ago?
If enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, SF 131 could put Wyoming at the forefront of the national abortion debate.
Unfortunately, it appears primed for passage. Three of the five Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee members who will consider the bill voted to introduce it, so the measure will likely advance to the full Senate. Abortion-rights advocates will need to convince at least five senators to change their votes to kill the bill, or it will move to the House.
In 2017, the House passed Wyoming’s first new anti-abortion bills in 28 years by wide margins. One new law infringes on the doctor-patient relationship by requiring that a woman seeking an abortion is given the opportunity to hear a fetal heartbeat, if one can be detected. The second bans the sale of fetal tissue for research, which has never been an issue in the state.
Those new laws and the 43-16 vote to introduce House Bill 197 — a medically unnecessary, mandatory 48-hour waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion — show that legislators today are reacting emotionally to the issue and ignoring medical science.
A heartbeat doesn’t automatically mean a human life has formed. The timing of fetal heartbeat detections depends largely upon what equipment is being used. Not all fetal heartbeats are alike and some aren’t heartbeats at all.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says, what is heard during a contemporary ultrasound at six weeks gestation is “an electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue.” It’s not part of any kind of cardiovascular system. The organization declares that heartbeat bills “do not reflect medical accuracy or clinical understanding.”
In a May 2019 Wired magazine article, science reporter Adam Rogers framed the quintessential issue this way: “Part of the debate [over fetal heartbeats] depends on whether you think a 3-to-4-millimeter-long, partially organized blob of cells is a human individual or not. It also depends on whether you think the government or the person in whom those cells reside gets to make that determination.”
I would welcome — and the public deserves — a legislative debate over the scientific merits of a bill banning all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. But that’s not what the supporters of SF-131 have in mind.
Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), the bill’s primary sponsor, told the Senate last Friday that “this is a bill about life, love and humanity. It is about doing what is right and what is just.”
He then launched into a spiel about the joys of parenting meant to tug at lawmakers’ heartstrings. The only thing missing was a string quartet playing in the background.
“Nothing melts the heart like holding your child or grandchild for the first time,” Biteman said. “That tender touch, that fear of overwhelming love, joy, fear and responsibility that comes with being a parent to a little human being. That is the most powerful mix of emotions we will ever feel in life.”
As a parent, I agree with him. Nothing compares to holding your child, and those emotions are all part of the unique bond that forms between parents and their offspring. It’s a soulful experience like no other.
But it has absolutely nothing to do with Biteman’s bill, which is a crass attempt to create a social wedge issue by characterizing anyone who opposes this radical measure as being not only anti-child, but against our very humanity.
I resent the ham-fisted theatrics and the lack of honesty in the presentation. I suspect we’ll all be treated to more of the same as this bill advances. But platitudes about parenthood don’t cut it when the issue is whether women will maintain their right to make their own reproductive choices without government intrusion.
Wyoming is supposed to value our constitutional freedoms. It’s time to prove that it does.