New abortion ban clears Wyoming House, heads to Senate; local legislators weigh in

    Four local legislators have co-sponsored a bill that would ban abortion in Wyoming.

    The Wyoming Legislature already passed an abortion ban last year, but that law has been temporarily suspended pending the resolution of a court case.

    Now, several lawmakers – including Wyoming Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, and Wyoming Reps. Pepper Ottman, R-Riverton, Sarah Penn, R-Lander, and John Winter, R-Thermopolis – have introduced new legislation that would ban abortion: House Bill 152.


    The bill would create the “Life is a Human Right Act,” stating that an “unborn baby is a member of the human race under (the) Wyoming Constitution … which guarantees that no person may be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law.”

    “Abortion is the intentional termination of the life of an unborn baby,” the legislation states. “It is within the authority of the state of Wyoming to determine reasonable and necessary restrictions upon abortion, including its prohibition.”

    Separation of powers

    The Act begins by stating that the legislature, “as a coequal branch of government, may make declarations interpreting the Wyoming Constitution.”

    That language prompted a question from Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, when HB 152 was introduced in front of the House Judiciary Committee last month.


    “(It) sounds a heck of a lot like we’re infringing on the judiciary there,” Oakley said. “Are we pushing the (legislature’s) role in a way that’s a violation of the separation of powers?”

    Wyoming Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody – the bill’s main sponsor – said she “would push back against that” characterization.

    “This declaration won’t prevent the judicial branch from reaching a contrary conclusion through judicial review,” Rodriguez-Williams said.


    “The judicial branch … does have the final word when interpreting the Constitution. However, the legislature can and should make its own interpretations.”

    ‘That’s the system’

    Oakley later voted against HB 152 in committee, noting that her decision was not based on her stance on abortion.

    “The reality is, that’s not what we’re discussing here,” Oakley said. “Wyoming has already passed a law that bans (abortion). Now it’s under judicial review. That’s the process, folks. Right? That’s the system.


    “The idea that you can then take the ball and say, ‘Never mind, we’re going home, we don’t want the courts to do their job,’ and then write into law that the legislature may make declarations interpreting the Wyoming Constitution … that’s not the way it goes.”

    Plus, she added, HB 152 “has significant problems,” including its definition of “unborn baby” as “an individual living member of the species homo sapiens throughout the entire embryonic and fetal stages from fertilization to full gestation and childbirth.”

    “I think we’re really going to have a problem there,” Oakley said. “This is a worse tool (than what) we already have.”

    Floor debate

    Oakley reiterated her stance when HB 152 came up on the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives this month, likening the state’s current abortion ban, which is being challenged in court, to a “horse” that is “three-quarters of the way there in the race.”

    “(HB 152) says, ‘Woah, never mind, we’re going to scratch that horse – we’re going to get a new horse,’” Oakley said. “And I think it’s a worse horse. I think we’re abandoning something that we’ve got going, and we’re derailing that, and it’s not going to work out well.”

    HB 152 would remove exceptions to abortion restrictions in cases of sexual assault or incest, Oakley pointed out; it also mentions the word “creator” and “references religious provisions.”

    “It’s more likely … than what we currently have to get overturned,” Oakley said, urging the House to wait until the court completes its review of the current law, then “see where we are.”

    “This is a worse bill, (a) more problematic bill,” Oakley said. “This is just making a mess of things.”

    She later said that, if HB 152 passes the House, she would “work on it.”

    “What we have currently is cleaner,” she said. “But if we’re going to pass this, I’ll do what I can to have the discussion and make it the best we can.”


    Penn responded directly to Oakley’s horse analogy later in the debate, arguing that “this isn’t scratching the horse that we have in the race – this is an attempt to lighten the load for the next race.”

    “We’ve identified weaknesses because of this court case, and that’s helping us bolster and strengthen our weaknesses for the future,” Penn said.

    She also spoke about the exceptions for sexual assault and incest that would be removed from Wyoming law if HB 152 were to pass.

    “The circumstances of one’s conception should never define the worth of that life,” Penn said. “Abortion can never erase a memory of a heinous act. … Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

    Ottman addressed some of Oakley’s comments on the floor as well, calling HB 152 a bill “about life” – not religion or personal opinions.

    “When you see two things come together that produce life and its own DNA, that is life,” Ottman said. “Is it valuable? Is life supported by our society and by everything that we stand for? … This bill is (about) determining that life should be protected.”


    Penn agreed that the question of “when conception occurs” has been answered by “science.”

    “It has been solidified,” she said, citing an article in the journal Nature that says “the life cycle of mammals begins when a sperm enters an egg.”

    “Fertilization is the process by which male and female … unite to produce a genetically distinct individual,” Penn read. “I think that’s pretty straightforward.”

    Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, acknowledged the information Penn shared from the academic journal when he stood to speak.

    “We heard from the quotes from some very good magazines, (and) I don’t deny that,” he said. “But I think if you go around and speak with your constituents, at least in my area, that there would be some disagreement on what they personally feel is the time of conception. … I had some conversations with folks in my district, and I was frankly quite educated at the varying degrees of when they think life begins after conception.”

    Larsen also criticized the “structure” of HB 152, which he said was “messy at least and could stand some work.”

    “Bless my good desk-mate, she wants to try and work on it,” Larsen said, referring to Oakley. “I don’t know that I do. …

    “I thought we’d done the right thing last year when we passed this bill that’s currently being considered in the higher court, and I too am of the opinion that it would be best to wait and let a decision pass down and then address whatever shortcomings we need to.”

    Trigger amendment

    Legislators proposed eight amendments to HB 152 on second and third reading last week, but only one passed.

    The successful amendment says that, if the bill becomes law, it won’t take effect unless Wyoming’s current abortion ban is declared unconstitutional.

    Larsen and Oakley voted in favor of the amendment, while Ottman, Penn and Winter voted “no;” it passed 34-28.

    HB 152 passed the House in a 46-16 vote on third reading last week, with Ottman, Penn, Oakley and Winter voting “aye” and Larsen voting “nay.”

    It was received for introduction in the Wyoming Senate on Feb. 9.


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