Wisconsin Legislature taking up anti-abortion bills

MADISON — Anti-abortion proposals that have failed to gain enough support among Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature were back on Thursday, but it remained unclear whether they had enough backing to become law.

The Assembly was scheduled to debate a measure that would prohibit state health insurance programs from covering abortions for state workers. The bill died in the Senate in 2013 under opposition from a broad coalition of opponents and indifference from Republican leaders.

Meanwhile, efforts to curb research using fetal tissue obtained from abortions were up for a public hearing in a Senate committee. Republicans are offering opposing approaches in the face of opposition from the medical and scientific communities, and GOP leaders have said they don't know if consensus can be reached.

Time is running short for the Legislature, which has its highest Republican majorities in decades, to pass the proposals. After next week, lawmakers won't return to vote on bills until January and they are expected to be in session for only a few days before quitting until 2019.

Sensing the closing window, anti-abortion groups urged action last week on a bill that would ban the use of aborted fetal tissue for research or any other purpose. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin are behind that bill.

A coalition opposing restrictions on fetal tissue research called Cures for Tomorrow includes BioForward, representing the state's bioscience industry, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW Health and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

They argue that passing the ban would cause an immediate disruption to promising ongoing research into Alzheimer's disease, cancer and other illnesses.

A competing approach — backed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — would target only the sale of fetal tissue and regulate certain research. That doesn't go far enough for the anti-abortion groups that support the other measure. They are registered in opposition to the bill, introduced by Sen. Alberta Darling.

Vos said this week that he didn't know if Republicans would be able to reach agreement on what direction to take.

"We got to the point where neither bill had the necessary votes to pass in our caucus, which is why the issue kind of fell by the wayside," Vos said.

The bill prohibiting Wisconsin state health insurance from covering abortions for state workers is back, even though the impact of such a ban would be minimal. That's because state health insurance plans currently cover only medically necessary abortions. But state law doesn't define a medically necessary abortion and the bill's sponsors want to remove any ambiguity.

The measure would allow coverage for abortions only in cases of rape or incest or to save the mother's life.

Opponents include the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Planned Parenthood and the Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health.