MADISON, Wis. – Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature unveiled a bill Wednesday that would create rape and incest exceptions to the state’s 1849 abortion ban and clarify when abortions that protect the health of the mother would be allowed. But the bill would not return the same rights that were in place under Roe v. Wade.
The measure drew immediate bipartisan opposition, however.
Democratic lawmakers said its introduction was a cynical ploy to deceive voters just three weeks before a pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court election. And Democratic Gov. Tony Evers promised a veto.
“I won’t sign a bill that leaves Wisconsin women with fewer rights and freedoms than they had before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe,” Evers said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu promised that the measure would not be taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate, noting Evers’ promise to veto it, saying: “This is not a topic to use as a political football.”
The bill comes as a pending lawsuit supported by Evers seeks to overturn the ban entirely and return the law as it was before Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that he hoped Democratic lawmakers and Evers would be open to clarifying the health of the mother exception and creating rape and incest exceptions for up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
“We are still proudly pro-life, but there are some things that are different than they were 175 years ago,” Vos told AP. “We wanted to put an idea forward that shows we are willing to be reasonable.”
Democrats weren't interested.
“Republicans are simply flailing after suffering unexpected defeat during last year’s midterm elections, in large part because of their draconian position on abortion access," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said. "The proposed legislation is misguided and wholly inadequate. They are sorely mistaken in their hopes that it will placate Wisconsin women.”
The Republican bill would allow for abortions only in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy for victims of rape or incest. It does not say how the determination would be made that a woman was the victim of rape or incest. The bill also does not put a time limit on ending pregnancies that would cause “a serious risk of death of the pregnant woman or of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.”
Republicans are also bringing back a bill that would allow pharmacists to dispense birth control. Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Kitchens said he saw it as a way to prevent more unwanted pregnancies. The Assembly passed the proposal last session, but it died in the Senate.
Republicans and their anti-abortion allies, who suffered a series of defeats in ballot questions in states across the political spectrum last year, are tackling the issue nationwide in a variety of ways, including seeking exemptions.
Evers made abortion a central issue in his winning reelection campaign, and it’s a key issue in a high stakes state Supreme Court race.
Evers has twice called special sessions of the Legislature seeking to repeal the ban and create a way to put the question before voters. Republicans rejected both proposals within seconds, without any debate.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Wisconsin law allowed for abortions for any reason at 20 or more weeks post-fertilization, or 22 weeks after the last menstrual cycle.
Under the current Wisconsin ban, first passed in 1849 and amended over the years, it is a felony to perform nearly all abortions.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed the lawsuit just days after Roe v. Wade was overturned, leading to the old law being reinstated. He argues that a 1985 law allowing abortions up to the point of a fetus’ viability supersedes Wisconsin’s 174-year-old ban on nearly all abortions. The point of viability is unclear; some physicians say it’s about 20 weeks, others around 28 weeks.
The lawsuit also argues that the ban is unenforceable because it has become obsolete. The ban was enacted before women had the right to vote and before the Civil War.
The winner of the state Supreme Court race on April 4 will determine majority control of the court that will likely decide the lawsuit. Democratic-backed candidate Janet Protasiewicz is running as a supporter of abortion rights. Her opponent, conservative Dan Kelly, is backed by the state’s three top anti-abortion groups, all of which support keeping the ban in place.
Polls have shown a wide majority of Wisconsin voters support keeping abortion legal and at the very least having rape and incest exceptions.
Milwaukee, Dane and Sheboygan counties were the only places in Wisconsin where abortions were taking place before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Clinics stopped scheduling abortions after the court’s ruling.