With the lawsuit against Wyoming’s abortion trigger ban still ongoing in court, a microcosm of the case played out Monday during a legislative committee meeting.
The House Judiciary Committee met to hear testimony on House Bill 152, the Life is a Human Right Act, but delayed its vote on the act until its next meeting, which is not yet scheduled.
The act would replace Wyoming’s current abortion ban – which has been blocked by a Teton County District Court judge – with a stronger abortion ban that addresses the court’s concerns and invokes the Wyoming Constitution’s Equal Protection clause as protecting pre-born life.
Two doctors who are suing the state over its existing abortion ban, known as the “trigger ban” since it was triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 overturn of abortion-rights case Roe vs. Wade, urged the committee not to pass HB 152.
Dr. Renee Hinkle and Dr. Giovannina Anthony, both obstetrician/gynecologists, testified against HB 152, saying it complicates the legal arena for doctors.
Hinkle said doctors will be afraid to treat pregnant patients with complications, and that they have already transferred patients to Colorado because doctors are fearful of the felony abortion charge.
Supporters of HB 152 pointed to its provision allowing doctors to act in crisis situations according to their “reasonable medical judgment.”
The debate echoes of Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens’ order blocking the trigger ban, in which Owens questioned the earlier ban’s lack of reasonable medical judgment provisions to protect doctors trying to save the lives of pregnant women.
‘When Does It Begin To Matter?’
HB 152 would proclaim that life begins at conception.
Hinkle said it shouldn’t be in the Legislature’s purview to define when life begins.
“Why do you as legislators suddenly get to just declare that this is the case?” asked Hinkle. “You’re making these statements from a Christian point of view, but there are so many people in this state that aren’t Christians.”
Nathan Winters, president of the Wyoming Family Alliance, later countered Hinkle by reading statements of numerous pro-choice doctors and other scientists, including Ann Furedie, the head of the United Kingdom’s largest independent abortion provider.
“We can accept that the embryo is a living thing in the fact that it has a beating heart,” Winters read from a 2012 Furedie quote. “But the point is not when does life begin, but when does it begin to matter?”
Winters said that “for most people in this room, I do believe that life begins to matter at that moment of conception.”
In Vitro Fertilization
HB 152 does not define “conception” but defines pregnancy as beginning at fertilization.
Dr. Anthony said criminalizing abortions from the point of fertilization could prevent in vitro fertilization (IVF) providers from working in Wyoming, since IVF procedures require “embryos of genetic concern” to be discarded.
“No IVF provider would come to this state to practice with this law in place,” said Anthony.
Other speakers floated the idea of starting the abortion ban at implantation, which occurs when the embryo travels through a woman’s fallopian tube and lodges in her uterus.
HB 152 would not ban contraceptives, would not penalize doctors for completing miscarriages or treating ectopic pregnancies, and would not penalize pregnant mothers in abortion prosecutions.
It contains exemptions for doctors who perform abortions to save women’s lives or to save them from serious injury.
The bill would, however, subject doctors who knowingly perform abortions to felony charges punishable by up to five years in prison and $20,000 in fines, and the loss of state medical licensure.
Under current Wyoming law and under the now-blocked trigger ban, doctors are allowed to abort fetuses conceived by rape or incest. HB 152 would remove those exemptions if it passes.
Anthony said HB 152 would erode women’s freedoms.
“If this Legislature is so willing to force Wyoming women to be pregnant against their will,” said Anthony, “then we truly are on the road to losing all of our rights and freedoms.”
Tara Muir, public policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said HB 152 would put the Legislature over women like a domestic abuser.
“(It is) akin to the ultimate abuse of power over women’s lives, dictating to them like an abuser would that her life and her choices mean nothing,” said Muir, who opposes the bill.
‘It Destroyed Her Soul’
Lillia Olejnik, a Cheyenne woman and Army veteran, rebutted, saying abortions kill innocent lives and can leave women traumatized.
“My sister had an abortion and it destroyed her life. She was very young, she’s now in her 50s and she continues to grieve the loss of what she did with her baby,” said Olejnik. “It didn’t help her like a lot of people claim it helps women. It destroyed her soul.”
Olejnik said she’s been deployed three times: twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, and as a drill sergeant was tasked with teaching basic paramedic field treatment.
“You always check for pulse, that way you know if you should render care for that soldier or move onto the next,” said Olejnik.
Fetal cardiac tissue starts to pulse at about five or six weeks’ gestation, well below the roughly 12-week cutoff for pre-viability abortions currently allowed in Wyoming with the trigger ban blocked.
“So why is it OK to kill a heartbeat when we can hear it?” asked Olejnik.
Judiciary Committee member Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, scrutinized HB 152 closely, saying he has doubts about its constitutionality.
The bill, for example, would allow individual legislators the right to intervene in lawsuits against the act.
The provision hearkens back to when trigger ban sponsors Reps. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, and Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, tried and failed last autumn to intervene in the lawsuit against the trigger ban.
Owens determined the legislators didn’t have enough personal ties bound up in the case, as plaintiffs and intervenors have to demonstrate that they could be injured by contrary outcomes in legal cases.
Committee Chairman Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, is a co-sponsor of the bill, but he worried aloud that the intervenor right listed in it could be a separation of powers issue.
Crago said he is being tough on the bill because he is pro-life and wants to see the Legislature put forth the best possible version.
Right To Property?
Crago also asked the bill’s sponsor, Rodriguez-Williams, why the language evokes Wyomingites’ right to private property.
Rodriguez-Williams deferred to Wyoming-based pro-life attorney Fred Harrison, who answered that the plaintiffs in the suit against the trigger ban have evoked property rights as a basis for a right to abortion access.
The committee likely will vote on the bill this week. A majority aye vote would send the bill to the House of Representatives floor, after which it would need to survive three majority-vote approvals to advance to the state Senate.