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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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Women lawmakers share stories about rape, difficult pregnancies in Wisconsin ultrasound bill debate
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Hesselbein: "I owe it to the women across Wisconsin,
especially the women who elected me, to tell these stories."
Hesselbein: "I owe it to the women across Wisconsin, especially the women who elected me, to tell these stories."
Credit:Judith Davidoff

This was no ordinary debate in the Wisconsin Legislature.

Rep. Mandy Wright (D-Wausau) shared publicly for the first time that she had been raped when she was 8. Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) talked openly for the first time about the anguish she felt when told 17 years ago that one of the twins she was carrying had died in utero and that she had to make a choice to "save the life" of her other son. And Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) told the story of how, when 18 weeks pregnant with her second child, she ended up in the emergency room, where she was told the fetal heartbeat could not be detected. Then she was sent for an ultrasound.

"I remember crying hysterically and wondering what I was going to see on that ultrasound," Taylor said during debate Thursday over a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to first have an ultrasound. It turned out to be a false alarm for Taylor, but she said the situation would have been much worse had there been problems and had she been forced to view another ultrasound before getting an abortion.

"I cannot imagine going through that, finding out something was wrong, and [having to have another ultrasound] to terminate a pregnancy. You have no idea what you're doing to women. Please have some empathy and compassion for women."

But these stories failed to sway Republican lawmakers, who rejected each of the 13 amendments offered by Democratic legislators and eventually approved the measure 56-39.

After the Assembly adjourned, Hesselbein said she decided to share her story publicly after consulting with her son. "He said, 'Absolutely mom. Maybe it will change their hearts and minds.'"

"It didn't work," she added. "But that was my hope."

Over eight hours Thursday, Republican lawmakers passed not only the ultrasound bill but two other bills restricting access to abortion and contraception. One bans state health care plans from covering abortions and exempts religious groups from the state requirement to provide birth control insurance coverage. The other prohibits sex-selective abortions and imposes fines on physicians.

The ultrasound bill also requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, which Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin says could force the closure of its Appleton-area clinic.

During a contentious floor session Wednesday, the Senate also passed the ultrasound bill after Republican leaders cut off debate. Gov. Scott Walker has said he will sign the bill into law. The other two abortion bills now head to the Senate, where leaders say they might not get to them until this fall, after the summer recess.

These bills are part of a renewed push in Wisconsin and across the country to restrict access to abortion and birth control.

During debate Thursday, Democrats railed against the "ghoulish" and "cruel" nature of the ultrasound bill and charged Republicans with playing politics.

"It's about satisfying the base of your party that you need to survive," said Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau). The abortion bills are all top agenda items for Wisconsin Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion organization and a powerful force in state Republican politics.

But supporters said their motives were pure.

"This isn't about politics," said Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan). "It's about life."

"We believe that somebody who may want to have an abortion may look at an ultrasound and … see that what's living inside of them is not just a mass of cells and make a decision to have that child," added Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc).

One of the amendments offered by Democrats that failed to pass would have specified that only an abdominal ultrasound could be required and not the more invasive vaginal probe.

"No one is going to be forced to have the type of ultrasound they do not choose," said Pat Strachota (R-West Bend), Assembly author of the ultrasound bill.

But Taylor noted that "a transvaginal wand is the standard of care. It provides better images than [an abdominal ultrasound]. Most places are not going to offer [a woman] a choice because this is the standard of care. This is government intrusion at its absolute worst."

As debate was winding down, Rep. Debra Kolsta (D-Janesville) acknowledged that it had been a hard day with "three anti-choice bills" that want to "chip away at Roe v. Wade," the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

Supporters of the bills, who made few comments during the debate, did not dispute that. In fact Strachota told the stories of two women who decided to keep their babies after seeing ultrasounds.

But these stories did not pack the same emotional punch as the first-person narratives from Democratic women lawmakers. A tearful Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains), who has one child, shared how she went through five pregnancies in all. During her second pregnancy she was told by her doctor that the baby would not be born alive. "He said, 'I can admit you or you can wait until nature takes its course.'"

Pope said she and her husband chose to have an abortion even though it was a child they wanted desperately.

"These are not choices we like," she said. But they are ones that should not be dictated by politicians, she added.

"I'm just appalled that you feel your morals [get] to play out in my life," said Pope in remarks meant for bill supporters. "Some decisions don't belong to you."

Hesselbein and Taylor said they decided to share their personal stories in part to encourage other women to tell theirs. "I owe it to the women across Wisconsin, especially the women who elected me, to tell these stories," said Hesselbein. "I wasn't elected to be silent."

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