Wisconsin's New Abortion Bill Is Problematic For Reproductive Freedom — Here's Why

It's safe to say that Wisconsin's new abortion bill raises a couple red flags. The newly proposed bill in the state's legislature would give fathers the power to sue doctors for a procedure performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and it would ban abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape or incest. Doctors who perform an abortion after 20 weeks could also face a $10,000 fine and up to three-and-a-half years in prison.

Wisconsin Assembly Bill 237 would impose a strict deadline on mothers. After 20 weeks, all abortions become illegal, except in cases that present a medical emergency to the mother. In other words, abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy would be completely illegal, even for victims of rape or incest. In cases of a medical emergency, a doctor can only perform an abortion in a way that gives the fetus the greatest chance of survival.

When a medical emergency is not present, a doctor who performs an abortion post-20 weeks could face felony charges — and a lawsuit or two. Fathers and mothers would have the right to sue for damages as a result of emotional and psychological distress. For this provision, the bill does provide an important exception: Fathers cannot sue if the pregnancy resulted from sexual assault or incest. Still, the fact that it allows them to sue at all raises new legal concerns.

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For an abortion occurring after 20 weeks, Bill 237 gives a father the right to sue the doctor, regardless of the father's relationship status with the mother. Men's rights groups have long advocated for fathers to be more legally involved in abortion decisions, but courts, historically, have not supported their requests. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that a woman did not have to notify her husband of her intention to get an abortion. Since then, every law requiring a husband's consent to an abortion has been struck down as unconstitutional. In this way, the courts have created and reinforced the idea that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion, and that right weighs more heavily than the father's right to consent to the procedure.

On the other hand, Wisconsin would not be the first state to enforce a 20-week abortion deadline. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization, 43 states limit abortions to some gestational period, ranging from 20 weeks to the start of the first trimester. Pro-life advocates often argue that 20 weeks is the point at which a fetus can feel pain, although science doesn't necessarily agree. What makes the bill controversial, more so than the 20-week deadline itself, is the fact that it applies even in cases of rape or incest.

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About the bill, and specifically the lack of rape- or incest-based exception, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is openly pro-life, told local media that he's OK with the bill because victims of rape and incest are typically most concerned about abortion "in the initial months." He went on to say that he plans to sign the bill once it reaches his desk. "I'm prepared to sign it either way that they send it to us."

At a hearing on Tuesday, doctors and women who have had abortions shared their opinions, both positive and negative, about the bill. The Wisconsin House and Senate will likely vote on Bill 237 on Thursday. Whether the women and doctors of Wisconsin like it or not, it's likely to pass thanks to a Republican majority.

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