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House lawmakers adopt a bill to ban abortion if last year’s ban is overturned

 A choose life sign in downtown Cheyenne. The sign depicts a woman wearing a head scarf with a baby at her chest and is white with cursive writing. The sign is on a light gray brick wall.
Kamila Kudelska
/
Wyoming Public Media
A choose life sign in downtown Cheyenne.

Last year, the Wyoming legislature passed a trigger ban that went into effect when Roe vs. Wade was overturned in June. That law is currently being challenged in court, so abortion is still legal in the state. One of the main arguments against the trigger ban is that it violates a certain section of the Wyoming constitution that's been on a lot of lawmakers' lips recently: Article 1, section 38:Right to health care access.

It reads, “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions. The parent, guardian or legal representative of any other natural person shall have the right to make healthcare decisions for that person.”

Basically, it gives individuals the right to make their own healthcare decisions. Wyoming citizens voted this into law in 2012 in response to Obamacare. The courts now have to decide if abortion is healthcare.

House Bill 152 is attempting to answer that question.

The original writing of the bill would replace the current trigger law that was passed last year. It would impose even more restrictions. Abortion would not be allowed in the case of incest or rape and it would allow people to sue providers who perform abortions. And it states unequivocally that abortion is not healthcare.

“Abortion is not healthcare,” said the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody), during the bill's first reading this session at the House Judiciary Committee meeting on Feb. 1. “Because it isn't, for so, so many reasons. And I won't waste the body's time. But I'll highlight again that the goal of abortion is the death of a human being.”

Ultimately, the big question was whether the bill would hurt the cause of making abortion illegal in the state. Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) said it simply at the committee meeting.

“We're giving the people who want pro-choice ammo,” he said. “That's all we're doing. And we are going to regret it. I'm fairly certain.”

Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) agreed. She’s one of the two Democrats on the committee who are for abortion rights.

“So part of me wants to say vote for this so we can ensure women have the right to choose,” she said. “What my conflict is, why don't I say ‘Let's just do that and pass this unconstitutional law and get what we want’ and that's because people elected me to do good work.”

Many lawmakers who are anti-abortion see the bill as unconstitutional for many reasons. Rep. Crago pointed out that the bill references Article 1, Section 18 of the Wyoming Constitution. He said it references religious liberty.

“I'm fairly certain religious liberty, although many of us up here are voting for this issue because of our religious beliefs, cannot be tied to a particular bill,” said Crago. “And that's what we're doing. We're tying religious beliefs to a bill in the language of the bill explicitly.”

Another main argument is that the legislature shouldn’t meddle in the business of the courts because that would be breaking the separation of powers of the branches of government. But Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) fought against that saying the court hasn’t made a decision yet.

“In cases where we do not have a court's ruling, as a branch of government, we have the ability to look at the Constitution and say, ‘You know what, that's until we have a court's ruling, that's how we're going to interpret this,’ so we can move forward with legislation,” said Haroldson.

Ultimately, Chairman Art Washut (R-Casper) made the tie-breaking vote in favor of moving the bill forward but said he may regret it in the future.

“I do have significant worries that at some point in the future, we may look back and say, ‘I wish we hadn't done that,’” said Washut.

Kamila Kudelska
/
Wyoming Public Media

During House debate, lawmakers brought up the same questions of constitutionality. Several amendments were introduced to try to address those issues but only one stuck, which was introduced by Rep. Crago.

“This gives us the opportunity to stick with what we did last year,” Crago told the House floor. “Stand behind what I believe is the constitutional vehicle to get this done. If it’s found unconstitutional, this bill would come into law in five days.”

What the amendment does is make HB152 a trigger law to last year’s abortion law. In other words, it will be a trigger ban added to a trigger ban. If HB152 passes the legislature this year, it won’t repeal the current law being challenged by the courts. Rather, if the courts come back and say that billis unconstitutional, then HB152 will become law after five days. Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said this is the best way to get to most of the lawmakers’ ultimate goal.

“I just think this amendment helps the bill, puts it in second position and keeps what we did last year going. It's already moving. I think that will be decided before putting another thing at the starting line,” said Zwonitzer.

But those against the amendment, like Rep. Rodriguez-Williams, said the bill is constitutional already and the best way to get abortion prohibited in the state quickly.

“It [the amendment] eliminates the whole purpose of the bill. It ensures that abortions continue in Wyoming for the next two years while the highest court of this state gets to the matter. All this time the preliminary injunction allowing for abortions will continue,” she said.

The amendment passed allowing the bill to pass its last reading in the House easily. It now will go to the Senate for consideration.
Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.