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February 29, 2024 11:16 pm

Local News

Wisconsin Lawmakers Propose Different Ways to Address Maternal Health Outcomes

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by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner

Wisconsin lawmakers are split on the best way to improve Wisconsin’s maternal health outcomes. Republicans circulated a new package of bills this week meant to update Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban and provide support to pregnant and postpartum mothers. Meanwhile, several Democrats introduced a bill meant to help close maternal health care coverage gaps and address Wisconsin’s high rates of maternal and infant mortality.

Five Wisconsin Republicans are circulating a package of bills that the authors say would support mothers and children by changing the legal meaning abortion in Wisconsin and providing funding to adoption and pregnancy resource centers.

“I am proud to offer these bills that clarify support for both the mother and the child,” Sen. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron) said in a statement. “We have put together a series of bills that build upon each other to provide protection and assistance to pregnant women and their children at all stages of life.” 

Wisconsin’s current abortion ban only includes an exception for life-saving “therapeutic abortions,” but many have said the exception is vague and unclear, and since the overturn of Roe v Wade, the law has prevented women from accessing emergency abortion care from physicians who are wary of violating the felony ban. Republican lawmakers say they want to  clarify the exception, so women are not denied life-saving care. 

The Republican bill would update the law to say that a “physician’s performance of a medical procedure or treatment designed or intended to prevent the death of a pregnant woman and not designed or intended to kill the unborn child” is not an abortion. The text of the bill specifies that this includes an early induction or C-section performed due to a medical emergency, the removal of a miscarriage or an ectopic, anembryonic or molar pregnancy.

Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield), a co-sponsor of the bills, said in a statement the bill would provide “clarity to the definition for terminating a non-viable pregnancy which protects the judgment of a physician.”

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), the co-author of a bill that would repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 ban completely, says the Republican bill would only  solidify the criminal ban and deceive Wisconsinites.

“Pregnancy is too complicated to legislate. And that’s why you know so-called exceptions to abortion bans are fake, they don’t work,” Roys says. “Secondly, the treatment for many of the conditions listed is abortion. I understand that it’s inconvenient for the anti-choice movement — which wants to criminalize all abortions — to admit that abortion is sometimes necessary to save a woman’s life and the fact of the matter is just saying, well, it’s not really abortion doesn’t change the fact that of course it’s abortion.”

Roys says the bill represents Republican disarray on the issue. 

“[Republicans] understand that their policy of criminalizing all abortion is totally unpopular… they see the electoral consequences of their bad policies,” Roys says. “At the same time, in our gerrymandered Legislature, they are beholden to the most extreme anti-choice, anti-birth-control interest groups, and so they can’t very well walk back what has been a 50-year march to criminalize abortion, so they’re trying to figure out a way to deceive voters about their intentions.”

The bill is the second Republican bill meant to update the law that’s been introduced this session. 

The first bill, which Rozar was the reluctant Assembly lead author on, would update Wisconsin’s pre-Civil War ban so it doesn’t apply to victims of rape or incest during the first trimester of pregnancy. It also would clarify the ban’s “life of the mother” exception, but rather than redefining what abortion is, it said that medical exceptions would apply when pregnancy would present a serious risk of death or irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function for the pregnant woman or when the fetus has no chance of survival. 

That bill divided Wisconsin Republicans and has not moved forward. Sen. Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said the bill would never be heard on the floor of the Senate. Recently, the bill was referred to the Senate Licensing, Constitution and Federalism committee. Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) said in a statement the action was made to silence debate on the bill.

The “Embrace Them Both” package includes three other bills meant to address. One bill would allow taxpayers to claim fetuses with a heartbeat for a tax exemption and increase the amount that taxpayers can claim for every dependent from $700 to $1,000. Another would provide grants to pregnancy resource centers and the last bill would dedicate $5 million to creating a grant program to make adoption more affordable for Wisconsin families.

The package of bills is supported by Wisconsin’s major anti-abortion groups: Wisconsin Family Action, Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life and the Catholic Conference. All of these groups opposed the bill adding rape and incest exceptions to Wisconsin’s abortion ban.

“This package promotes all-important, life affirming legislative initiatives,” Rozar said of the latest abortion ban updates. “These reasonable bills should move through the legislative process with bipartisan support and be signed by the governor.”

The bills, if passed, would almost certainly be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.

Roys says the goal of the tax break bill is to work towards establishing fetal personhood, which would redefine unborn fetuses as a person. 

“It is simply a way to try to establish fetal personhood, or embryonic personhood in this case,” Roys says. “Anytime you’re talking about attempting to basically give legal rights to a pregnancy. You’re talking about taking away the legal personhood of the woman, of the pregnant person.” 

Roys says none of the bills will help address the poor health care outcomes for pregnant people and babies in Wisconsin. 

“We need to be very clear about what these bills do and do not do,” Roys says. “What they do not do is make life better for any pregnant woman or any baby in the state. They don’t provide health care to anybody. What they actually do is continue to undermine the legal rights of women in our state. They double down on Wisconsin’s draconian criminal abortion ban, and they shovel taxpayer dollars into anti-choice propaganda centers.” 

Democratic maternal health bills

Democrats re-introduced a bill focused on updating health care coverage for pregnant women in order to combat the concerning statistics surrounding maternal mortality in Wisconsin. 

According to the state Department of Health Services (DHS), Wisconsin maternal mortality rates are five times higher for Black women than for white women, compared to a national rate that is two or three times higher for Black women. Around two-thirds of the deaths happen between 43 and 365 days postpartum and over 90% of those deaths are preventable. State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa)

“It is considered more dangerous today for a woman in her 30s to have a baby than it was for her mother,” said Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa), the lead Assembly author, in a statement. “We are trending in the wrong direction, and we need to turn it around.” 

The bill would require disability insurance policies and governmental self-insured health plans to cover the essential health benefit of maternity and newborn care. Roys, a co-author on the legislation, said the bill “fills in gaps for plans that have not previously been required to include this care.”

Wisconsin’s commissioner of insurance would be instructed to establish the care benefit by rule. The bill includes requirements that the plans would include no or limited cost-sharing requirements and don’t discriminate against people because of their disability or expected length of life. 

Vining said increased maternity care coverage would benefit women and children since prenatal and postnatal health care can identify and treat complications of pregnancy including preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, ectopic pregnancies, life-threatening mental health concerns and infection. 

Roys says the bill is one item in a long list of policies that Democrats are pursuing to address maternal and infant health outcomes in Wisconsin. 

“We’re looking at every possible angle where we could do something to try to make things better for moms and babies,” Roys says. “That includes repealing the criminal abortion ban, that includes access to health care, no matter who you are or how you’re insured, that includes working for paid family leave, so it doesn’t matter who your employer is, you’re not going to lose your apartment or your job because you have a baby or you have a pregnancy complication.”

This story was written by Baylor Spears, a staff reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.