The 2020 Wyoming legislative session saw multiple pro-life bills fail. The bill that came the closest to passing was SF-97, Born Alive Infant Means of Care, which overwhelmingly passed both chambers but was then vetoed by Governor Gordon.
The bill sought to close an existing loophole in Wyoming law, ensuring that an infant who survives an abortion attempt would be extended the same life-saving provisions that any other infant would receive. Some question the need for such legislation.
Evidence from other states indicates that abortion providers are not confused by political rhetoric surrounding abortion debate. They know what abortion does and that the current legal line separating the “right” from a crime is arbitrary. Gruesome cases like the one involving Kermit Gosnell show that providers who set out to end the life of an unborn child don’t always experience an awakened sense of responsibility for saving that life just because it passes the birth canal.
Dr. Rene Hinkle, a Cheyenne OBGYN physician, twice testified in opposition to SF-97. Since 2009, she is on record opposing many various pro-life bills like those requiring 48-hour abortion waiting periods, and ultrasounds. Last year, Dr. Hinkle opposed a reporting bill which Governor Gordon signed into law. It created a fine for providers who do not comply with an existing abortion reporting mandate that has been in existence since 1977. This was a necessary change because two providers in the state publicly admitted they have ignored the law.
Dr. Hinkle was re-appointed to the Wyoming Board of Medicine by Governor Gordon, and she passed her Senate confirmation vote 17-13 as the session concluded in March. She has since been nominated to serve as Vice President of the board.
In her testimony against SF-97, Dr. Hinkle said she was opposed because abortion after the age of viability (which she said begins at 23 weeks) is already against the law, so no abortions of viable fetuses are possible in Wyoming.
Aside from the fact that premature infants have survived delivery as early as 21+ weeks, an exception in Wyoming statute exists that allows post-viable abortions to preserve the “life or health” of the mother. In Doe v. Bolton, SCOTUS ruled that maternal “health” includes “all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age – relevant to the well-being of the patient.” This is a significant loophole, which allows late-term abortions in Wyoming for a whole host of imaginable reasons. Contrary to Dr. Hinkle’s testimony against SF-97, aborting viable fetuses is legal in Wyoming.
During testimony on HB197 Abortion- 48 Hour Waiting Period, Rep. Art Washut of Casper, asked Dr. Hinkle, “When a pregnant mother comes into your office, do you see one patient or two?”
Dr. Hinkle responded that before a fetus reaches the age of viability, there is a higher rate of miscarriage. She said it would be too difficult to think of losing so many patients. So, she acknowledged that until a fetus reaches the age of viability, she only sees one patient.
As a former firefighter, I understand what Dr. Hinkle is saying. People in life-saving professions walk a thin line between compassion and caring so much that the loss of a patient threatens their ability to continue serving. They need some level of detachment if they hope to be there for the next patient. In this case, because they have a higher mortality rate, Dr. Hinkle does not consider fetuses under 23 weeks patients. Such detachment may seem callous, but it is vital to sustaining a career.
When it comes to politics, however, such detachment leads to inhumane laws.
Opponents of abortion restrictions routinely say that the legislature has no business coming between a patient and her doctor. But what happens when doctors admit that, because of age, they don’t consider half of the people entering their office to be patients? Does the Hippocratic Oath apply to a person who is deemed “not a patient”?
Advancing the common good requires seeing people who are negatively impacted by current laws. This is true whether considering the working poor, the uninsured, the immigrant, the elderly, the unborn, or the infant who survives an abortion attempt. Although we can’t save every life, our laws should not pretend those lives don’t exist.
In my heart of hearts, I believe Dr. Hinkle feels she has been doing the right thing. But as the Covid-19 crisis has revealed, it would be a dangerous and unjust precedent if age becomes the legal, deciding factor for who qualifies to be a patient and who does not.
No profession likes government oversight. That’s understandable. But the Wyoming Board of Medicine should recognize the optics of one of their members shielding abortion providers while providers simultaneously admit non-compliance with existing law. Such “above-the-law” attitudes are precisely why many Wyomingites are concerned about abortion law loopholes and consider bills like SF-97 necessary.
A government that abdicates its duty to protect the lives of any portion of its population is a government that forfeits the grounds upon which it has any claim on authority in the first place.
Deacon Mike Leman works for the Diocese of Cheyenne as the director of Catholic social teaching and legislative liaison.