Abortion exceptions for rape, incest shouldn’t be up for debate

Opinion by Kerry Drake, WyoFile

Wyoming may be only one election cycle away from making abortion illegal for pregnant victims of rape and incest.

It’s only because an anti-abortion state senator missed a vote, in fact, that such protection for victims was maintained during the Legislature’s recent budget session.

It’s a sobering indication of how radical and devoid of compassion some “pro-life” Wyoming lawmakers have become. For nearly three decades the Legislature rejected all attempts to erode reproductive freedom, but over the last five years those rights have been increasingly under attack.

Anti-abortion activists can only go so far, because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision has guaranteed abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman, as well as exceptions for rape and incest, for nearly half a century. Americans still strongly believe in such exceptions. An Associated Press/National Opinion Research Center poll last November found 84% support the provision.

Now that conservatives have a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court, lawmakers in Wyoming and several other red states are rushing to implement new statutes in anticipation of Roe being overturned. That includes eliminating the rape and incest exceptions that the nation now takes for granted.

I can’t recall a single time Wyoming lawmakers rushed to pass a bill reacting to a decision that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t yet written.

But House Bill 92 – Abortion prohibition-Supreme Court decision sailed through both chambers, with the House passing it 43-16 and the Senate passing it 25-4. Sponsored by Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody), HB 92 would only allow abortions in certain instances to save a woman’s life. She resisted an amendment to include rape and incest victims.

“The reality is that two wrongs don’t make a right,” she said. “Abortion is not health care, and abortion is murder. … Life is sacred, and babies in the womb are innocent.”

During floor discussion, Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie), who is pro-choice, said she hadn’t planned to speak. What she recounted next was one of the bravest personal accounts I’ve ever heard on the House floor.

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Provenza said she was raped when she was 14 years old.

“I was a child, and I was horrified of what would happen if I was pregnant,” she said. “I was so scared that I didn’t tell anybody. That man walked free. And you’re asking young girls to potentially …  face that reality, and I was one of them. … How ‘pro-life’ is that?”

Provenza’s rape did not result in a pregnancy, but had it, a fellow representative made clear that wouldn’t have changed her views.

“To make that decision [to have an abortion] now, to get rid of this thing that you may hate, is not a good thing,” said Rep. Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton).

Another Riverton legislator, Democrat Andi LeBeau, said HB 92 would force pregnant victims “to be reminded every living moment of the very intimate, horrifying crime done to them, and to allow the crime to be continuously perpetrated.”

But the House didn’t listen, and sent the bill to the Senate, where the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee unanimously passed it.

“When everything is said and done, that baby in the womb doesn’t have a vote or a choice,” said Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette).

HB 92 wasn’t even discussed before its initial Senate vote, when lawmakers typically debate controversial bills.

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But senators couldn’t avoid the issue the next day, when Sens. Cale Case (R-Lander) and Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) successfully added the exception for sexual assault and incest.

I cringe when I hear anyone who doesn’t have a uterus discuss the issue, because too often they demand all abortions be outlawed, no matter how a fetus is conceived. Such men are also, ironically, prone to ranting that “big government” must be kept out of our private lives.

But Case and Rothfuss showed welcome compassion for victims.

“Women are not property. They don’t belong to the state. You can’t make them do this,” Case said. “I know you think you can, and I think that’s where the bill wants to go, but especially in these very egregious circumstances, the government can’t do this to women.”

Rothfuss said he is pro-choice but respects the opinions of those who disagree. Still, he said, when a woman is traumatized by a criminal act, recognizing “her individual autonomy, control over [her] body, to me seems even more justified.”

Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) focused on incest victims.

“The only way for a young lady to prove she has been molested is taking away that evidence by taking a human life,” she said, adding the experience “may mar that young lady for life.”

And forcing her to carry to term that pregnancy caused by a father, brother or other relative — and raise the child or give the baby up for adoption — aren’t damaging consequences for a victim of one of society’s most reprehensible acts?

Given the Senate’s increasingly hard turn to the extreme-right, I honestly didn’t know how the vote would go.

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The amendment passed 15-14, with McKeown excused. But his vote would have resulted in a tie, and left the exception for rape and incest out of the bill.

The Senate made another improvement to HB 92, which originally called for the attorney general to review any ruling that overturned Roe. The AG would certify within five days that Wyoming’s new state law complies with the decision, and it would go into effect.

After an amendment, the attorney general now has 30 days to review the Supreme Court’s decision and report to the governor and the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee. The governor can certify the results of the review to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The changes make HB 92 slightly more palatable, but it’s a wholly unnecessary piece of legislation that, if Roe is overturned, effectively bans nearly all abortions in the state.

Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) noted Supreme Court decisions aren’t always simple. While abortion opponents are counting on the court to make all abortions illegal, Ellis said, “I think it’s way more nuanced than that. And I wouldn’t see why we wouldn’t wait to see what the Supreme Court does, analyze that [and] talk about it as a Legislature.”

It is now exceedingly difficult to obtain an abortion in the state. There are only two clinics, both in Teton County.

Most women in Wyoming are forced to seek abortion services in another state. In Cheyenne, that means a 40-mile trip to Fort Collins, Colorado.

But for women in central Wyoming, going out-of-state may require taking two days off from work, plus travel and lodging expenses. It’s an impediment to exercising a legally protected right.

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The Senate also sought to ban five “abortion pills” that may now be used in non-clinical settings or at home. This method of terminating a pregnancy doesn’t show up in Wyoming’s health statistics, but it’s comparatively common due to the state’s lack of clinics.

Senate File 83 – Prohibiting chemical abortions passed the Senate by a 2-to-1 margin, but died in the House. The proposed penalty for selling, using or distributing the drugs was up to six months in jail and/or a fine up to $9,000.

Let’s see: Many Wyoming lawmakers want to force women to have a criminal’s baby, but they’re fine with making any woman a criminal for terminating a pregnancy by using a now-legal drug.

This is the moral high ground? It serves as a stark reminder that elections matter. All it will take is electing a few new legislators who don’t consider rape or incest legitimate exceptions, and another right of “Equality State” women will disappear.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.