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Committees take up 20-week abortion ban in emotional hearing

Associated Press

Senate President Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, talks in support of her bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, in Madison, Wis. Lazich, the bill's co-author, says the bill is aimed at reducing pain in unborn children. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Senate President Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, talks Tuesday in Madison in support of her bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks. Lazich, the bill’s co-author, says the bill is aimed at reducing pain in unborn children. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two Wisconsin health committees took up a fast-tracked bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks Tuesday, hearing testimony from doctors about when a fetus can feel pain and from women who’ve had abortions.

Under the bill, doctors who perform an abortion after 20 weeks in non-emergency situations could be charged with a felony and subject to up to $10,000 in fines or 3-½ years in prison. The committees are expected to vote Thursday. If passed, the bill will be taken up by the full Senate and Assembly as early as next week.

Supporters of the bill, co-authored by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Senate President Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, argued in the hearings that 20-week-old fetus can feel pain.

“The medical literature is exquisitely clear that the structures exist (that allow a fetus) to feel pain at 20 weeks,” said Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists.

But Dr. Tosha Wetterneck, speaking on behalf of the Wisconsin Medical Society, said that research is inaccurate. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said evidence suggests that a fetus can’t experience pain until the third trimester begins at 27 weeks.

As written, the bill doesn’t provide an exception for pregnancies due to rape or incest and requires that physicians performing abortions in situations in which the mother’s life is in danger do so in a way most likely to ensure the child’s survival.

Wetterneck said the bill wouldn’t serve women’s medical needs, because doctors would have to weigh legal repercussions with possible care options.

According to the most recent information from the state Department of Health Services, roughly 1 percent of abortions in Wisconsin in 2013 occurred after the 20-week mark — 89 of nearly 6,500 abortions performed that year.

Burlington resident Briel Vanderwerff told legislators Tuesday that she was hesitant to terminate a pregnancy after learning in a 17-week ultrasound that her daughter was missing a large portion of her brain and was developing cysts all over her body.

“Imagine hearing your daughter is going to die and there’s nothing you can do,” she testified. “You’re supposed to be excited about those images, but I was just heartbroken.”

She told legislators that it was a very difficult decision, but she was pleased to have the choice to terminate the pregnancy weeks later because she was told the condition would be fatal.

“I had to kiss my lifeless baby and leave her, just to bury her two days later,” she said.

But Anne Hafner, of Appleton, told the committees she was pleased she avoided a late-term abortion when her doctor told her son was missing part of his brain in utero and had serious defects.

“We refused. We couldn’t cause our child pain from abortion,” she said. Her 11-year-old son Bryce was with her Tuesday, and the fifth-grader asked the lawmakers that they pass the bill to save lives like his.

Ten states have passed 20-week bans, according to the reproductive health think-tank Guttmacher Institute, which depart from the 22-24 week standard of a fetus’ viability outside the womb established by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

Gov. Scott Walker said Monday he’ll sign the bill whether or not it has provisions for pregnancies conceived from rape and incest.

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