Thursday, September 06, 2007

Madison, Wisconsin: emergency contraception bill public hearing set

From Madison Capital Times, Compassionate Care hearing Thursday, 10 a.m., 225 Northwest, State Capitol

Months after the state Senate passed a bill that would require hospitals to dispense emergency contraception to rape victims, the bill will get a hearing Thursday before a state Assembly committee.

Rep. Mark Gundrum, R-New Berlin, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary and Ethics Committee, said in June that he had no plans to schedule a public hearing on the bill. But in an interview Tuesday he said he had always left the possibility open: "I had no idea if or when, but now's the time." [Editor: Non US readers should note, bills that fall under a certain legislator's committee can be stalled by that legislator if s/he is inclined to do so.]

Republican colleague Terry Musser, who is the bill's main sponsor in the Assembly, says the move is a sign of widespread public approval for the bill and mounting pressure for its passage within the party.

Gundrum, a devout Catholic who has been endorsed in his Assembly campaigns by Pro-Life Wisconsin, which opposes all forms of birth control and is opposed to the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims bill, said he reviewed the bill and decided it "merits more discussion."

He said he is particularly interested in listening to testimony related to the "constitutional issues related to the bill."
Gundrum said there is a concern that the bill "mandates what doctors must tell patients, which is a First Amendment free speech issue" and that it violates religious freedoms guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. "I've been contacted by a lot of doctors with moral objections about being forced to do this," he said, noting the Milwaukee Catholic Doctors Guild opposes the bill.

The bill would require a hospital to give a sexual assault victim information about emergency contraception and, upon her request, the medication itself. Most often marketed as Plan B, emergency contraception is essentially a high dose of birth control pills that is highly effective at preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public arm of Wisconsin's bishops, said it did not object to the bill, a stance that many cited as a reason that some Republicans have publicly supported it.

Rep. Musser, R-Black River Falls, said he does not believe there are constitutional roadblocks in the bill. "I think it's more smokescreens than anything else," Musser said this morning.

Chris Taylor, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, which supports the bill, also dismissed any constitutional concerns about the bill.

"Nine other states have passed this law and there has never been a constitutional challenge," she said. "The state clearly has the right to regulate health care professionals and entities to protect the safety, health and life of patients," she said.
Taylor said hundreds of bill supporters have contacted Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, protesting his referral of the bill to Gundrum rather than to Republican Rep. J.A. "Doc" Hines of Oxford, who chairs the Assembly's Public Health Committee. Hines had said he would promptly hold a hearing on the bill.

Musser said Gundrum finally bowed to pressure within his own party and from the public to schedule a hearing on the bill.
Musser said he urged Gundrum to hold a hearing so that the constitutional issues he was raising about the bill could get discussed.

"I had never heard of them before so I said let's have a hearing," Musser said. "It's hard to respond to scuttlebutt."
Taylor said Gundrum and other Republican leaders finally "saw the writing on the wall."

"He underestimated support for this bill," Taylor said. "So did Huebsch."

Musser said the bill would pass the Assembly if it gets passed out of Gundrum's committee.

"I think it would be like the Senate," he said. "If we got a straight up or down vote on this, the Assembly would be overwhelmingly for it."

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