Deplorable but understandable. That's how I regard the Wisconsin Republican Party’s war on public workers.

Public sector employees and their unions were a bastion against the GOP's staggering and growing financial edge in state politics, so the party’s outright war on teachers, firefighters and their kind was transparent and predictable.

What I don't get is the equally malignant war against women by Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

Sure, it may in part be a labor-union-like assault on Planned Parenthood, the family planning organization whose political arm is strongly aligned with Democrats.

More likely, though, this crusade against women is simply definitive proof that the Wisconsin Republican Party has moved beyond the far right to, well, perhaps the Deep South.

It is anti-woman, anti-union, anti-worker, anti-public education, anti-consumer and anti-intellectual, a multi-front march to the rear.

Whoever you resent and whatever your far-right prejudices, these Republicans stand ready to assist.

In the legislative session that ended last week, the GOP-run Legislature failed to pass jobs legislation on venture capital and iron ore mining, the kinds of issues Walker and allies bragged would be their laser focus. After all, they claimed, they were all about jobs.

Instead, they dove headlong into social issues, culminating in three abhorrent actions last week.

Republicans passed a bill requiring that sex education in schools promote marriage and teach students that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy. The bill also allows abstinence-only sex education. Current law requires that sex education courses in public schools should be comprehensive, covering sexually transmitted diseases and how to use birth control.

The GOP's logic seems to be that young people will eschew sex if we simply don’t educate them about it.

Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, facetiously proposed amendments to also give schools discretion on whether to teach the "science of germs" and the "theory of gravity."

Another bill that passed restricted some insurance coverage for abortions, but a third was the biggest outrage.

It requires physicians, under the threat of a felony charge, to speak privately with a woman seeking an abortion to determine whether she had been "coerced" and to conduct an exam before providing abortion-inducing drugs. It also requires doctors to consult women in person and not by video conference, which foes said is used in rural areas in other states but not in Wisconsin anyway.

Roys proposed that since Republicans want to use doctors to perform a "shaming lecture," that a state legislator also be required to be in the room to act as the official "state shamer." Her amendment failed.

The bill, which was passed late Thursday in the Assembly after earlier Senate approval, has been lambasted by the Wisconsin Medical Society for meddling in the doctor-patient relationship. The language, I am told, was some of the strongest to ever come from the physicians' lobby.

But what do doctors know about reproductive health issues compared to the gaggle of middle-aged Republican males who dominate this Legislature?

"A lot of this has been going on for a long time, but you never heard politicians talk so openly about it," says Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who was Planned Parenthood’s public policy director before being elected to the Assembly last year. "Now the people making those attacks (on women) are in power."

Perhaps this was predictable. Taylor points out that Walker, when he was a state representative, fought to allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptives and was a leader in trying to disable family planning across Wisconsin.

If you have followed the GOP presidential primary and the broader national scene, you know the war against women is occurring everywhere: the Blunt Amendment, the Susan G. Komen Foundation blowup over Planned Parenthood funding, Rush Limbaugh calling a female law student a "slut" because she had the temerity to support insurance coverage for contraceptives, various forms of forced vaginal probes as an abortion prerequisite. The list grows.

In the Wisconsin bill adding restrictions on doctors, an exam is required, but what sort of exam that is goes unspecified, Roys says. She assumes it means a vaginal exam, so she offered another facetious amendment.

Roys proposed that men should be required to get a rectal exam and cardiac stress test before getting a drug for erectile dysfunction. I appreciate the symmetry.

Meanwhile, there is what might be called a national "vaginal exam" debate that made headlines last week when Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strips explored a Texas law. The law requires abortion providers to perform an invasive ultrasound, play sounds of the fetal heartbeat and show and describe images before any woman can receive an abortion.

The comic strips are powerful and apparently uncomfortable to some. A spokeswoman for Doonesbury's syndicate I called says that about 50 of the 1,400 newspapers that subscribe to the daily strip inquired about a substitute, but she did not know how many declined to publish them.

Trudeau told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that he was surprised by the blowback: "We need a robust debate on these shocking rollbacks of reproductive rights. But I didn’t set out to gin up some kind of furor. It just followed me home this week."

Last week in Washington, D.C., yet another gender battle erupted over U.S. Senate attempts to renew the "Violence Against Women Act," a law passed with bipartisan support that funds programs nationwide to combat domestic violence, but which is now being targeted by conservative Republicans.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said GOP opposition was surprising but fits a larger frame. "This is part of a larger effort, candidly, to cut back on rights and services to women," she told the New York Times. "We’ve seen it go from discussions on Roe v. Wade, to partial-birth abortion, to contraception, to preventive services for women. This seems to be one more thing."

Wisconsin certainly appears part of the trend. Roys, who was executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin before her election in 2008, says the actions follow many years of the GOP driving out moderate voices.

"I think for a long time there was a stasis in that there was a moderate element that kept the worst impulses of the extremists at bay," she says. "There were elder statesmen (in the GOP) who said we are not going on a culture war. Those folks have been pounded and primaried out of the party."

Taylor agrees that the state GOP has "culled" moderates and that anti-abortion organizations in endorsement processes insist on absolute adherence to litmus tests like the radical "personhood" definitions of life beginning at conception.

Roys says the fight transcends reproductive rights: "They are really, really passionate about taking away women’s opportunities generally."

Agrees Taylor: "When you talk about rolling back access to birth control, you are really talking about rolling back access for women to the public forum, civic engagement and educational engagement."

And Roys contends: "It is totally at odds with their fiscal conservatism. If you are going to have a world in which workers make a lot less, then you need two people in a household working. You can't have big business continually putting downward pressure on wages and then not giving women access to control over their own reproduction so they can go out and work."

Roys says all of this should help Democrats because the party has its biggest advantage with independent women voters who distrust Republicans on women’s health issues.

But "in times of economic scarcity and anxiety, you are more likely to have these kind of fear-based and fringe policies and ideas coming to the fore because people are anxious about their status in the world," she says.

She says Republicans try to create an image that the women in their lives are trustworthy, not like those "other" women, and that their wives and family members will never need Planned Parenthood for cervical cancer screening or for an abortion: "They think there is some other kind of woman out there who is not as good as their wife."

Roys and Taylor are guardedly optimistic about how this will all play out.

"I think Democrats have been way too timid in talking about these issues," says Taylor. "I think they are winning issues" with the independent women voters pivotal to election outcomes. "If Democrats aren’t talking about this, they should be."

Says Roys, "I think it is going to play a larger role (in recalls and fall elections) in part because it is a national pattern. People cannot believe what they are hearing" from presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, so the topic of women’s issues is generally more top-of-mind.

Roys faults Democrats as well. "The Republicans keep moving the goalposts" from abortion to contraception to sex education, ratcheting up the overall pressure, she says. "And Democrats have failed to stand up when they have had the chance. I don’t see us suddenly developing a backbone on this until we start electing more women."

Roys adds, "I have been fighting these kinds of fights for more than a decade and this is the most energy I have ever seen in terms of outrage and willingness to get involved."

If this whole Mississippi-like spectacle doesn’t motivate moderate women and men across the state to vote this year, it is hard to imagine what will.

Paul Fanlund is editor and executive publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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