MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Senate Republicans abruptly shut off debate Wednesday before a dramatic vote in which they approved a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound.
Democrats tried in vain to be recognized to speak as the roll call vote proceeded despite their objections. Republican Senate President Mike Ellis repeatedly banged his gavel so forcefully he broke the base. He shouted at Democrats, saying they were out of order and would not be allowed to speak.
"You're interrupting a roll call and that will not be tolerated, sit down!" Ellis yelled at Democratic Minority Leader Chris Larson.
"I understand you're afraid of this debate," Larson said, his microphone turned off.
The bill passed 17-15 with all Republicans in support and Democrats against. It now heads to the Assembly, which was expected to pass it on Thursday. Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday he would sign it into law.
Wednesday's unusual early morning debate in the Senate, which began shortly after 8 a.m., came about after Democrats used a procedural move to block a final vote after hours of debate on Tuesday. Only two senators, one Democrat and one Republican, were able to speak Wednesday before Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald cut off debate after about 30 minutes.
Republican Sen. Mary Lazich gave an impassioned defense of the measure she sponsored, saying it was a small step that would protect women by giving them more information about the decision they have to make.
"In the last 5-10 years I've become more and more aware of women suffering from abortion trauma," Lazich said. "I, we, stand with women for health care."
Lazich said women should not be denied information they receive from an ultrasound. She said women who have had abortions and later regretted what she described as a "horrific decision" have contacted her in support of the measure.
"There's no reason we should not be doing this," Lazich said. "This is such a small thing we're doing, for Pete's sake."
Ultrasounds are already typically performed on women who seek abortions, but they aren't in every case, said Jenni Dye, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. The bigger change under the bill is the detailed information the person providing the ultrasound would have to give the woman, she said.
Under the bill, an ultrasound technician, not necessarily a doctor, would have to display the image of the fetus, describe the size, location and number of fetuses, and identify any viewable internal organs or external features.
Should the bill become law, as expected, Wisconsin would become the ninth state to require women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group.
Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, was the only Democrat who spoke Wednesday. She read testimonials from women opposed to the measure and said the true intent of the bill was to close clinics in Wisconsin.
"I too believe that abortion should be rare, but I strongly believe it must be legal and it must be safe," she said.
Democrats lashed out at Republicans following the debate, with Sen. Bob Jauch saying Fitzgerald needed psychological help. Democrats accused Republicans of abusing power and struggling with anger issues.
Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, said the decision to cut off debate prevented women across Wisconsin from understanding exactly what's in the bill.
"I am just shocked and disgusted," Lassa said, pounding the podium during the news conference.
Democrats spent about 2 1/2 hours debating the bill on Tuesday. They could have debated longer then but chose not to, Fitzgerald said in an interview Wednesday. Tuesday's debate ended amicably after no senator indicated they wanted to speak again.
Fitzgerald said he offered Democrats about 30 more minutes of debate on Wednesday. Larson said he turned it down because he viewed the offer as "flimsy" and Republicans wanted Democrats to "shut up" when the time ran out.
Republicans instead employed a Senate rule that allows them to cut off debate.
"I wish we didn't have this kind of trouble," Ellis said in an interview later. "These are my friends but they've got to live by the rules."
In addition to requiring an ultrasound, the bill would also mandate that an abortion provider have the authority to admit patients to a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortions are performed. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin said that provision would require it to close its clinic in Appleton, leaving just three clinics in Madison and Milwaukee where abortions are performed.
Any facility that provides free ultrasounds would have to make both abdominal and the more intrusive transvaginal ultrasounds available.
Anti-abortion groups in Wisconsin supported the bill, while the Medical Society of Wisconsin and other medical organizations opposed it.
The Assembly planned to take up two other abortion-related bills, in addition to the ultrasound measure, on Thursday. One would ban using taxpayer money to cover abortions in public employees' health insurance plans. The other would ban abortions for the purpose of gender selection.