Wisconsin anti-abortion groups set 2015-17 agenda

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin anti-abortion groups are gearing up for another legislative session, with plans to push for a new ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and to revive a host of initiatives that went nowhere last time around.

The anti-abortion lobby scored a huge victory last session when the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Republicans retained their majorities in the Assembly and Senate in November's elections, setting the stage for more wins for anti-abortion groups. Republican leaders aren't publicly committing to anything, but Democrats are already fuming.

"These extremist groups and their Republican allies will not stop until abortion and birth control are inaccessible in Wisconsin," said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

One of the most contentious issues could be Wisconsin Right to Life's plan to push for a so-called fetal pain ban, which would bar abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy based on the disputed notion that a fetus could feel pain after that.

About a dozen states have passed such bans, which depart from the standard of viability established by the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. That decision allowed states to limit abortions in cases where there's a viable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb, generally considered to be between 22 and 24 weeks.

While some doctors contend that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says evidence suggests that a fetus can't feel pain until the third trimester begins at 27 weeks.

Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said her group's top priority is fortifying Wisconsin's so-called right-of-conscience laws.

The state constitution includes language that allows people to refuse to act in ways that might clash with their religious or moral beliefs. WFA wants to amend that language to prohibit the state from punishing anyone for exercising his or her right of conscience. Such a provision would ensure that a doctor would face no penalty for refusing to perform an abortion. A constitutional amendment that would have made the changes went nowhere last session.

Pro-Life Wisconsin, meanwhile, still wants license plates displaying the words "Choose Life." A bill that would have created the plates passed the Assembly but died in the Senate last session.

Rep. Andre Jacque, R-DePere, one of the right-of-conscience amendment sponsors last session, said he'll push for an audit of Planned Parenthood to see whether the abortion provider is overbilling Medicaid. Nicole Safer, the group's political director, said the organization has nothing to hide and isn't afraid of Jacque's "threats."

None of the groups mentioned resurrecting a pair of contentious bills from last session that would have barred public workers' health insurance from covering abortions, exempted religious organizations from providing insurance coverage for contraceptives and banned abortions based on whether the fetus is male or female.

The Assembly passed the measures but Senate Republicans shelved them after Democrats promised "all out hell" if they came up for debate. The bill's Senate sponsors, former Republican Sens. Glenn Grothman and Joe Leibham, aren't returning this session.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge William Conley is weighing whether the admitting privileges law improperly restricts abortion in Wisconsin. If Conley strikes the law down Republicans may decide to bring a revised version of the measure forward.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn't immediately return a message. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Senate Republicans haven't discussed the session's agenda as a group.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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