Welcome to the Wyoming Legislature, where no bad idea ever seems to die. It may hibernate for a few years, but don’t be fooled: It’s bound to  spring back to life and dare a new batch of lawmakers to squash it again.

Case in point: Senate File 131 – Human heartbeat protection act. This piece of legislation is the most extreme anti-abortion measure considered by lawmakers since an almost identical bill was defeated in 2013. It would ban all abortions after an embryo or fetus has a “detectable fetal heartbeat.”

That qualifier has been the subject of debate for several decades, morphing into one of the nation’s most controversial political arguments. It will take center stage later this week in Wyoming on the heels of the Senate’s 20-10 approval of SF 131 — the exact two-thirds margin the bill needed to be considered during the budget session.

Policymakers will face the decision to base state laws governing women’s reproductive rights on one of two things: emotion or scientific facts. The latter prevailed for nearly three decades, but the tide is turning in a Legislature that keeps shifting to the far right.

The bill’s supporters say a fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks after conception. But at that stage of embryonic development, opponents note, many women don’t even know they are pregnant. Sharon Breitweiser, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming, says if SF 131 becomes law it would effectively ban all abortions in the state.

Does the bill violate the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that determined women have the fundamental right to choose to have an abortion during the first trimester of their pregnancy — approximately 12 weeks?

Yes, it unquestionably does — and that’s precisely why these extreme anti-abortion bills are being sponsored in conservative states like Wyoming. Proponents are not content to erode abortion rights in incremental measures state by state. They are hoping to use passage of such legislation as the catalyst to overturn Roe V. Wade in its entirety.

In 2013, thanks to the wisdom of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, Wyoming’s first heartbeat bill was rejected by a 4-5 vote. While the issue left the halls of the Capitol building, it didn’t disappear. That same year, North Dakota and Arkansas passed heartbeat abortion bans that were overturned by a federal court in 2015. 

In 2019, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio all approved similar fetal heartbeat bills. Federal courts have temporarily blocked those laws from being enacted, along with ones passed by Kentucky and Mississippi. Iowa’s law was struck down by a state court.

But the same goal is shared by proponents in all these states: That sooner or later one of those court decisions will be successfully appealed to the Supreme Court. With a conservative 5-4 majority on the high court, the future of Roe hangs in the balance. Will SCOTUS make a political decision, or base its eventual ruling on the precedence its justices set nearly 50 years ago?

If enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, SF 131 could put Wyoming at the forefront of the national abortion debate.

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Unfortunately, it appears primed for passage. Three of the five Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee members who will consider the bill voted to introduce it, so the measure will likely advance to the full Senate. Abortion-rights advocates will need to convince at least five senators to change their votes to kill the bill, or it will move to the House.

In 2017, the House passed Wyoming’s first new anti-abortion bills in 28 years by wide margins. One new law infringes on the doctor-patient relationship by requiring that a woman seeking an abortion is given the opportunity to hear a fetal heartbeat, if one can be detected. The second bans the sale of fetal tissue for research, which has never been an issue in the state.

Those new laws and the 43-16 vote to introduce House Bill 197 — a medically unnecessary, mandatory 48-hour waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion — show that legislators today are reacting emotionally to the issue and ignoring medical science.

A heartbeat doesn’t automatically mean a human life has formed. The timing of fetal heartbeat detections depends largely upon what equipment is being used. Not all fetal heartbeats are alike and some aren’t heartbeats at all.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says, what is heard during a contemporary ultrasound at six weeks gestation is “an electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue.” It’s not part of any kind of cardiovascular system. The organization declares that heartbeat bills “do not reflect medical accuracy or clinical understanding.” 

In a May 2019 Wired magazine article, science reporter Adam Rogers framed the quintessential issue this way: “Part of the debate [over fetal heartbeats] depends on whether you think a 3-to-4-millimeter-long, partially organized blob of cells is a human individual or not. It also depends on whether you think the government or the person in whom those cells reside gets to make that determination.”

I would welcome — and the public deserves — a legislative debate over the scientific merits of a bill banning all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. But that’s not what the supporters of SF-131 have in mind.

Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), the bill’s primary sponsor, told the Senate last Friday that “this is a bill about life, love and humanity. It is about doing what is right and what is just.”

He then launched into a spiel about the joys of parenting meant to tug at lawmakers’ heartstrings. The only thing missing was a string quartet playing in the background.

“Nothing melts the heart like holding your child or grandchild for the first time,” Biteman said. “That tender touch, that fear of overwhelming love, joy, fear and responsibility that comes with being a parent to a little human being. That is the most powerful mix of emotions we will ever feel in life.”

As a parent, I agree with him. Nothing compares to holding your child, and  those emotions are all part of the unique bond that forms between parents and their offspring. It’s a soulful experience like no other.

But it has absolutely nothing to do with Biteman’s bill, which is a crass attempt to create a social wedge issue by characterizing anyone who opposes this radical measure as being not only anti-child, but against our very humanity.

I resent the ham-fisted theatrics and the lack of honesty in the presentation. I suspect we’ll all be treated to more of the same as this bill advances. But platitudes about parenthood don’t cut it when the issue is whether women will maintain their right to make their own reproductive choices without government intrusion.

Wyoming is supposed to value our constitutional freedoms. It’s time to prove that it does.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. This article highlights a great dichotomy in our nation as to what we value as a society.
    Destroy a fertilized human egg – . . . .
    Destroy a fertilized eagle egg – per the US Fish and Wildlife Service, updated December 20, 2019: “16 U.S.C. 668c; 50 CFR 22.3. The 1972 amendments increased civil penalties for violating provisions of the Act to a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second conviction. Felony convictions carry a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of imprisonment. The fine doubles for an organization. Rewards are provided for information leading to arrest and conviction for violation of the Act.”

    1. Let’s return to the Good Book and see what it says. The Lord thy God commands that man should be fruitful and multiply and then commands that man, whom the Lord has given dominion, should insure that all creatures be fruitful and multiply. (Yeah that is in Genesis) So let’s review what this idea means, shall we?

      The Lord could have just used multiply as man has certainly multiplied to almost 8 billion people; however, the Lord said “bear fruit”. I would contend, and the Lord would agree, that man has decimated plants and animals across the world, which indicates that man has not been fruitful as he multiplied. Christians are the main purveyors of defying God’s commands; while those that understood the balance between man and nature rightly passed laws to try to make man think about the Lord’s commands. Why are christians so ignorant of the Word of Lord?

      If Christians really read or understood their Bible, they would see that we should educate people about sex as they have been mislead by their teachers that the Bible does not talk about sex. Genesis 3 is all about sex, but most have been told its about an apple. If Christians actually allowed the teaching of sex education, we would not need to discuss abortion, because it would not be necessary. But alas the multipliers that run their mouths over this issue, do not realize they have not educated themselves enough to “bear fruit”.

      PS If the American Christian cared as much about The Fourth Amendment (4a) as they did about the Second Amendment (2a), not one would make a ridiculous comparison between an eagle egg and person that deserves privacy when making a decision that does not affect them. Mind your own business and tell your lawmakers too also.

      1. Greg,

        To quote: “If Christians actually allowed the teaching of sex education, we would not need to discuss abortion, because it would not be necessary. ”

        I am not sure what you mean by this. Do you think Christians dictate what is taught in schools and therefore there is no sex ed? If so, I want to assure you that sex ed is taught in schools. It was when I was in a public elementary school and it was when my own children attended public school.
        Unfortunately, there are many reasons why people find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, but ignorance of how it happened is not one of them.

  2. If only women’s reproductive constitutional rights were as sacred as gun owner’s constitional rights.

  3. Republican legislators in Alabama passed a bill that outlaws abortion for any reason, including rape or incest, unless the life of the mother is at risk.

    In response Alabama Democratic State Representative Rolanda Hollis has proposed a measure that will force men to have mandatory vasectomies at their own expense when they reach age 50 or after the birth of their third child whichever comes first.

    “We can’t put all the responsibility on women,” Rep. Hollis said. “Men need to be responsible also. It takes two to tango.” Under existing law, there are no restrictions on the reproductive rights of men, a synopsis of Hollis’s vasectomy legislation states.

    Cue Republican outrage in 3, 2, … Bingo! We have a winner!

    US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) responded to Hollis’s bill: Yikes, Cruz tweeted. A government big enough to give you everything is big enough to take everything … literally.

    Sounds like Sen. Cruz is now firmly pro-choice and against big government trying to regulate the reproductive systems of its citizens. Thanks for the flip-flop, Ted.

  4. I don’t see anything about this article that defines you as a journalist, you appear to be giving your opinion as a liberal hack! I really don’t understand how people can deny that life truly begins at conception and there is rarely a reason for an abortion. It is very rare that the life of the mother is in danger and birth control is never a good reason. I resent your attempt to say that science in the womb magically becomes a baby after the first, second or third trimester. It is life for nine months!

    1. How about mind your own business? Whatever happened to butting out of Doctor’s and the patient decision? Have you no decency?

      Well at least you have representatives that reflect your values as Bo is your man. It’s funny that legislators actually do represent the values of people that elected, no matter how sad that may be.

    2. This IS an opinion piece not a news article. I agree with Mr. Drake. This bill is nothing more than a big, old slab of red meat meant for people who are pro-birth but not pro-life.