Wisconsin could become the first state to ban distribution of the morning-after pill on state college campuses, thanks to a new bill passed by the Assembly on Thursday. If passed by the state Senate, the restriction would the first of its kind in the U.S.
The lower chamber passed Assembly Bill 343, deemed the UW Birth Control Ban, by a 49-41 vote, according to The Associated Press. Representative Daniel LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) introduced the bill in April after a University of Wisconsin-Madison health clinic published ads in campus newspapers suggesting students request prescriptions for the pill in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies during spring break.
The bill, which has sparked debate between pro-choice and pro-life groups, would ban University of Wisconsin System health centers from advertising, prescribing or distributing emergency contraception. More than 161,000 students are enrolled in the state university system across 26 campuses.
"Are we going to change the lifestyle of every UW student? No. But we can tell the university that you are not going to condone it, you are not going to participate in it, and you are not going to use our tax dollars to do it," LeMahieu told the AP.
Democrats say the legislation would deny rape victims a chance to stop pregnancies and predicted that it will boost the number of unwanted pregnancies and surgical abortions. They also said the bill is unconstitutional and so vaguely worded that, if passed, it could prohibit all oral contraceptives.
"Apparently some in this body want to take us back to the time when the dispensing of contraception was a criminal act," Representative Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) told the AP. "[This is] a direct frontal assault on the right to privacy, on the right of free speech, on the right of a free press."
Emergency contraception has been available for more than 25 years and could prevent 1.7 million unintended pregnancies and 800,000 abortions each year in the U.S., according to Planned Parenthood. Nearly half of America's 6.3 million annual pregnancies are accidental, while up to 80 percent of teen pregnancies are unintended, according to the health organization.
The morning-after pill contains hormones that reduce the risk of pregnancy for up to five days after unprotected intercourse by preventing ovulation or fertilization of a fertilized egg in the uterus. (It does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases.) University of Wisconsin students are currently able to acquire the pill, which has a 95 percent success rate, at discount rates from campus pharmacies funded by student fees.
Wisconsin is among several more states considering laws that would allow pharmacists to refuse filling birth control prescriptions on religious and moral grounds. South Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia have already implemented such a law.
Meanwhile, on the flip side, New Hampshire joined six other states on Thursday — including Alaska, Hawaii, California, Maine, New Mexico and Washington — in allowing pharmacists to dispense emergency birth control without a prescription. New York is considering a similar proposal.