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Fetal heartbeat bill in Legislature divides abortion foes, political candidates

GOP proposal to ban abortion after 6 weeks has moved out of committee, awaits floor vote

Women's March ATX rally, Saturday, Oct., 2, 2021, at the Texas State Capitol
Women’s March ATX rally, Saturday, Oct., 2, 2021, at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas. An expected decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming year to severely restrict abortion rights or overturn Roe v. Wade entirely is setting off a renewed round of abortion battles in state legislatures. Stephen Spillman, AP File Photo

A Texas-style abortion bill proposed for Wisconsin has received a lot of attention and appeared to be on the fast track, getting approval from a legislative committee on Feb. 11, fewer than two weeks after being introduced.

However, it’s unclear whether Republicans will take up the controversial legislation before the session ends.

The proposal has divided anti-abortion groups, and the issue has already come up ahead of November’s gubernatorial race.

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Proposed laws prohibiting abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected have surfaced in Wisconsin and other states ahead of a key U.S. Supreme Court decision on a Mississippi law that could end or weaken the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion across the country.

Research from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates a proposed ban on abortion after six weeks could affect women who don’t know they’re pregnant yet, preventing them from getting an abortion later after pregnancy is confirmed through a test.

The first indication of possible pregnancy is a missed period, and a review of menstrual cycle tracking apps shows 22 percent of the people in the study had cycles that varied in length, sometimes by as much as a week or more.

That research was published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I think it’s important for policymakers to know there may be essentially no time between when a person discovers they are pregnant, the missed period, and fetal cardiac activity,” said Jenna Nobles, professor of sociology at the UW-Madison. “It’s particularly true for people with unpredictable cycles, which is more common in young people, Hispanic people and people with common medical conditions.”

Currently, Wisconsin bans abortion after 20 weeks and has restrictions on the procedure, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that the pregnant woman have an ultrasound.

In addition, the state has a currently unenforceable 172-year-old statute that makes providing an abortion a felony. That old law doesn’t provide exceptions for rape or incest.

“It only has an incredibly limited exception if a therapeutic abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother,” said Mike Murray, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.

The new GOP bill banning abortion before six weeks includes an exception to protect a pregnant woman’s life or prevent irreversible physical problems from the pregnancy.

Wisconsin Right to Life and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference support the bill but Pro-Life Wisconsin has objected to certain provisions.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is against the bill, which faces a likely veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has said he’d oppose any legislation that “turns back the clock on reproductive rights in this state.

Republican gubernatorial challengers have indicated their support for such a bill. Shortly after announcing her bid for governor, Rebecca Kleefisch said she would sign legislation banning abortion once doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat.

A campaign spokeswoman for Kevin Nicholson told WPR, “As governor, Kevin would sign legislation that prevents abortion and protects innocent life.”

State Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campellsport, who is also running for governor, is a co-sponsor of the proposal.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to state that Wisconsin currently bans abortions after 20 weeks.