In 1977, only four years after the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Wyoming’s laws governing abortions, Gov. Edgar Herschler, D-Kemmerer, signed legislation that required “the reporting of every abortion performed or prescribed in” the state of Wyoming.
The law, while taking care to protect the identity of the mother, required abortionists to record the age of the mother, the type of procedure, any complications, the number of pregnancies, births and abortions in the woman’s history, the length and weight of the child and the type of facility in which the abortion was performed.
The year the law was passed, the Center for Disease Control thought there were 113 abortions in Wyoming. The year after it was passed, that number jumped to 716. Unless we are to assume that abortions jumped by over 600 percent in a single year, the law was addressing a real problem of under-reporting.
Even then, however, the numbers recorded in Wyoming did not match those kept by Planned Parenthood’s research arm, the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Over the next three years, Guttmacher consistently recorded over 1,000 abortions per year while the state of Wyoming only knew of 700 to 800. Then the bottom dropped out.
For the past 38 years Wyoming statistics that are not sheer estimates tend to hover in the single digits while Guttmacher continues to report hundreds of abortions in Wyoming every year.
What accounts for this disparity? The answer seems clear. Wyoming reporting law lacks any enforcement mechanism. So, while the initial impact of the law caused abortionists to report at a higher rate, they soon realized that they could ignore the law with impunity.
For decades, Wyoming’s board of medicine did not investigate any of the non-reporting abortionists. Some say that the board has the authority to initiate an investigation on its own, others question this. But all agree that it is not required to do so.
By 2007, Wyoming’s chronic under-reporting had come to the attention of state legislators. Rep. Bob Brechtel, R-Casper, introduced legislation to provide a penalty for abortionists that did not follow the law. Similar legislation was submitted again in 2009, 2016 and 2017.
In all four of these previous attempts to address the problem, the bill either was never assigned to a committee, or the committee declined to act on it. But this year, something changed. This year’s bill, “HB 103 Reporting of abortions” was scheduled for a committee hearing on Jan. 31. It passed the committee with a significant amendment.
The original version of the bill addressed the problem by imposing a late fee of $1,000 for forms that were not submitted within 30 days. It then provided that, after six months, the board of medicine “may” direct the doctor to submit the form or face disciplinary action.
The House Labor Committee amended that to get rid of the late fee and change the word “may” to “shall.” This compromise solution left the discipline of Wyoming doctors to the board of medicine but would require the board of medicine to take action where it had declined to take action for the previous four decades. With this amendment, it cleared committee on a 5-4 vote.
This is the bill which was heard by the Senate’s Labor Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 20. I happened to be in Cheyenne, so I listened in on the hearing. Since our senators from both Evanston and Kemmerer were on the committee, it seems like a good idea to tell the story.
After some opening remarks, Chairman Charles Scott, R-Casper, began by hearing about 30 minutes of testimony from Wyoming citizens who spoke alternately for and against the bill. Generally speaking, three things stood out in this testimony.
First, most of the bill’s opponents did not speak against giving the board of medicine investigatory authority. Rather, they opposed the reporting of abortions altogether. Here, Chairman Scott was graciously indulgent.
He could have reminded the speakers that Wyoming state law already requires reporting of abortions and that the passage or failure of this bill would not change that. Instead, he allowed healthy latitude for people to speak their minds.
Incidentally, the only appreciable change to the content of what is reported is that where the 1977 law requires the length and weight of the aborted child, HB 103 would allow the abortionist to substitute only the gestational age.
A second theme of the bill’s opponents was that there are so few abortions performed in Wyoming that this bill is unnecessary. When making these assertions, they never cited the sources of their data.
Since the whole point of the bill was to strengthen the reliability of our current data, it would be a circular argument to cite the currently incomplete data as a reason not to fix the problem of incomplete data.
Third, one person asserted that we already have plenty of laws that cover abortion reporting. However, she did not point out a single place in statute to back up her claim. In fact, that is the entire question under dispute.
If the board of medicine already has the authority and the mandate to enforce Wyoming’s reporting laws, it should be called out for four decades of dereliction of duty. But if the legislature neglected to give them proper authority, it would be manifestly unfair to blame the board. Instead, it should receive the proper power to investigate and discipline through this amended law.
After public comment, the committee made a couple of minor amendments to further strengthen patient privacy provisions. Then the committee discussed the bill itself.
Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, was the first to comment, “I’m disappointed that we need the bill, that we have those two physicians that are plainly sticking their thumb out and thumbing their nose at us and the board of medicine. This should be unnecessary, but if this will correct it, then, I’m for the bill. It’s disappointing that we have people that do that.”
Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, spoke next. “I think the board of medical examination and those boards are the ones that need to take care of this. … If the medical examination board is not doing their job, maybe that’s where we need to go with this.”
Responding to this suggestion, Sen. Stephen Pappas, R-Cheyenne, said, “I don’t think that’s necessarily correct. I mean, if the board of medicine could have intervened and taken care of the problem, it would. The problem is they don’t have the authority. So, this [bill] now gives the board of medicine the investigative authority. … If the board of medicine had that authority, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, closed committee comments by highlighting testimony that Wyoming is one of only four states that is not reporting adequately to the CDC.
After this, Chairman Scott made his final comments: “As you know, I’m on the pro-choice side of the argument. … I think this is a bill that somebody who is fundamentally pro-choice can vote for.”
With that, the roll was called. HB 103 Reporting of abortions was passed out of committee. Scott, Baldwin, Pappas and Bouchard voted for it; Schuler voted against it.
As of Friday, Feb. 22, it had passed second reading on the floor. If it passes third reading on Monday, it will be headed to the governor’s desk. Wyoming has had adequate reporting laws in place since 1977. Perhaps after four decades, we are finally ready to give the board of medicine authority to enforce them.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.