CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House of Representatives put its stamp on a piece of legislation imposing felony-level penalties for parents and doctors who decline to provide lifesaving care to aborted infants born alive, a win for anti-abortion advocates but a blow to critics who feel the legislation strips the rights of parents and their doctors to spare suffering for children born with profound birth defects.
Passed through the Senate with relative ease, Senate File 97 marks the first successful piece of major anti-abortion legislation to pass the Legislature this year. (A bill imposing a mandatory 48-hour waiting period for abortions died in committee.)
Sponsored by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, the bill, through a language change in statute, would essentially impose a penalty of up to 14 years in prison for medical practitioners who – in cases where a mother’s life is threatened, for example – perform an abortion, have the baby be born alive, and decline to provide it lifesaving care, even if the child has serious medical issues that would make the child incompatible for life.
Others in favor of the bill have argued throughout the process that all lives — no matter how long they last — are worth preserving.
“Life is either precious or it’s not,” Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, argued in debate on the bill Monday night. “And to me, all life is inherently, God-givenly, precious.”
The legislation resembles a bill sponsored at the federal level by Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse that would require that health care practitioners “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age.”
Supported by boosters who saw the legislation as a referendum on the value of human life, the bill nonetheless made some lawmakers anxious, both for the restrictions it would put on parents and doctors and for the chilling penalties that could cause physicians to pause or even decline to facilitate procedures necessary to save a life or prevent further suffering by the child – even if requested by the parent.
Several attempts to amend the bill were made in the 45-minute debate on Wednesday, a follow-up to an already emotional hearing on the bill earlier in the week. Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, introduced a lengthy amendment that would have essentially pared down the penalties for doctors and their patients from a felony offense to a misdemeanor.
However, even with a change to that amendment that would have separated patients from their doctors under the change, the amendments still failed by broad margins, with Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, arguing leniency for doctors under that provision would give them cover under the law via a sort of “Nuremberg defense.” That defense — named after the location of trials of Nazi officers after World War II — involves an assertion that the defendant was just following orders.
Others, however, saw the rollback of the penalties as a necessary protection for doctors who may find themselves in life-or-death situations for their patients. Jackson Democratic Rep. Mike Yin, however, said the underlying penalty — which has been in statute since 1977 — was too harsh.
“Are you willing to bet 14 years of your life on something like that?” Yin asked.