Wyoming lawmakers face anti-abortion bills

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming lawmakers are facing bills this session that would restrict access to abortion services.

Meanwhile, a group is capitalizing on the legal victory it won against the state last year that allows it to display an anti-abortion poster in a tunnel leading to the state Capitol.

The anti-abortion bills aren't set for a hearing until late in January but abortion rights groups already are gearing up for a fight. Similar bills have been defeated in recent legislative sessions but have sparked contentious debate.

One pending bill, sponsored by Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is audible. He said Tuesday his bill would effectively bar abortions after the first six weeks of pregnancy.

A similar "heartbeat" bill is pending in Mississippi and one was defeated last year in Ohio.

Although the federal courts have ruled in favor of the right to abortion, Kroeker said he believes his bill is constitutional.

"Our country was founded on the principle that everybody has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Kroeker said. "That was in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. But I believe it is just protecting the life and liberty of the unborn."

Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Leslie Nutting, R-Cheyenne, would require a doctor performing an abortion to get signed confirmation from the woman that she had been given an opportunity to view an ultrasound of the unborn fetus and to listen to its heartbeat.

Sharon Breitweiser, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming, an abortion rights group in Laramie, said Tuesday that Kroeker's bill would amount to a severe restriction on abortion services in the state. She said women now may receive abortions through the second trimester, or about the 19th week, of pregnancy.

"The Supreme Court has said that the state, during the first trimester, basically can't restrict," Breitweiser said. "This is an outright ban on abortion obviously very early in pregnancy."

Breitweiser said she expects the state would incur legal costs in an unsuccessful effort to defend the measure if it becomes law.

Speaking of Nutting's bill, Breitweiser noted that Wyoming citizens amended the state constitution last year to recognize peoples' right to make their own health care decisions.

A large poster is on display in the pedestrian tunnel between the state Capitol and the neighboring Herschler Building during the current legislative session. It shows a fetus and the words, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. God, Jeremiah 1:5."

WyWatch Family Action, an anti-abortion group, is displaying the poster. The group won a federal court ruling against the state last year acknowledging that state officials had violated the constitutional rights of WyWatch members by removing that same poster in 2011.

Under a settlement agreement, the state agreed to pay WyWatch Family Action $1 in nominal damages and $30,000 in attorney fees.

After WyWatch filed its lawsuit early last year, the State Building Commission, which includes Gov. Matt Mead and the other four statewide elected officials, enacted a new policy banning all public displays of materials in the tunnel area. The commission reversed itself last July and agreed to reopen the space.

Becky Vandeberghe, chairman of WyWatch, said Tuesday her group reinstalled the poster in advance of a "right to life march" scheduled for Saturday in Cheyenne. She said her group strongly supports Kroeker's bill and is informing its members to turn out to support it.

Rich Cathcart is the state official whose decision to remove the WyWatch poster in 2011 sparked the WyWatch lawsuit. He said Tuesday that he's still in charge of reviewing posters.

Cathcart said he judges them as acceptable, "if I look at it and I'm not offended." He said that if he found one offensive, he would forward it to the governor's office for further review.

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