In the abortion debate, the slightly blue state of Wisconsin and fiery red state of Texas have rarely been grouped together — until now.
Last week, Democratic Texas Sen. Wendy Davis grabbed headlines and lit up social media as she spoke for 11 hours to prevent a vote on what would have been one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. Locally, one thing became clear in the aftermath of her action: The Texas bill was almost a mirror image of abortion-restricting bills rapidly making their way through Wisconsin’s Legislature.
Of the four provisions Texas lawmakers rolled into a single bill, Wisconsin has either passed, or is in the process of passing, three of the four. Two of the provisions are included in one bill awaiting Gov. Scott Walker’s signature. That bill would require a woman to have an ultrasound prior to an abortion, and would require abortion clinic doctors to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the clinic.
A third component of the Texas bill, now in the drafting phase in Wisconsin, would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Wisconsin’s shift toward severely restricting women’s access to reproductive health care can’t be attributed to a swing in public opinion. Nor is it being driven by a call for change from the state’s medical community. Instead, it’s being driven by tea party politicians wielding their power at the state Capitol. They are pushing so-called model legislation championed by abortion opponents, who have a friendly audience here with conservatives now in control.
It’s an effective new strategy that continues to chip away at Roe v. Wade through legislation at the state level rather than waiting in hopes the law will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Wisconsin is right up there with the craziest of the crazies when it comes to restrictive policies. We’re right up there now with Texas and Oklahoma,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a staunch pro-choice advocate and former public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “I don’t think women can take much more.”
Susan Armacost, Wisconsin Right to Life’s legislative director, said her group is “very pleased with the common-sense initiatives” that have advanced in the Legislature over the past three years.
“Wisconsin has moved from being relatively moderate to being quite hostile on abortion rights,” said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager with the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to advance sexual and reproductive health through research, policy and education. “Clearly there are similarities to what was debated in Texas and what is occurring in Wisconsin.”
And while Texas has long been labeled with Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma as the “usual suspects” when it came to hostility toward safe and accessible abortion and access to contraceptives, Wisconsin hasn’t been in the category, Nash said.
Abortion opponents’ strategy to chip away at reproductive rights state by state has traction. In 2012, 42 states and Washington, D.C., enacted 43 abortion restrictions, making it the second highest year on record after 92 abortion-restrictive laws passed in 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Of the 43 provisions passed, more than half, or 24, were passed in just six states. Arizona led the way with seven. Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin followed with at least three each, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
And Wisconsin isn’t a minor player; rather, it’s leading the charge on the latest model pieces of legislation designed to close down abortion and family planning clinics.
“It’s not quite as simple as to say it’s the Republican Party driving the change. Over time, the Republican Party has become more polarized within itself,” Nash said. “The very conservative arm of the tea party has pulled the party to the right. That’s what you’re seeing at work in Wisconsin.”
Public polling supports her observation. According to the most recent Marquette Law School Poll that included a question on abortion, 28 percent said abortion should be legal in all circumstances; 32 percent said abortion should be legal in most circumstances; 23 percent said abortion should be illegal in most circumstances, and 12 percent said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. (Four percent said they didn’t know.)
The poll, conducted Oct. 25-28, 2012, interviewed 1,404 voters and eligible voters who said they would register by Election Day.
The Marquette Poll mirrored the results of a national survey of 2,008 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that was also conducted in October 2012, showing that, although Wisconsin is pushing ahead to pass restrictive legislation, its electorate isn’t more conservative than the nation.
“Public opinion rarely translates directly into public policy,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll and a professor of law and public policy there. “Legislators respond more to opinion among their party supporters rather than (public) opinion as a whole.”
For example, in Wisconsin, 63 percent of Republicans said abortion should be illegal in most or in all circumstances, but only 36 percent of the broader public said the same, according to the cumulative results of three Marquette polls conducted last fall.
“If Republican legislators adopt policy that their partisans support then they would be well to the right of the public at large,” Franklin said.
Wisconsin Right to Life’s Armacost said the group is committed to “moving our agenda forward regardless of who is in charge.”
She said Wisconsin has become one of the anti-abortion leaders by passing a number of bills, particularly the ultrasound bill.
“That is a huge victory not only for Wisconsin but it will provide the impetus for more states to move forward,” she said.
Walker has said he will sign it. When he does, Wisconsin will join nine other states — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia — enacting similar laws.
The bill, SB 206, known as “Sonya’s Law,” would require a woman to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion and would require a physician to explain to her what is on the screen.
This is considered extremely invasive, as an ultrasound often needs to be performed vaginally until at least the 12th week of pregnancy in order for the image of the uterus not to be obstructed by the pelvic bone.
Judges have blocked the law from taking effect in North Carolina and Oklahoma on the grounds it violates a doctor’s free speech rights and illegally interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.
The Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, Wisconsin Hospital Association and the Wisconsin Public Health Association all oppose the ultrasound bill and the bulk of other bills limiting abortion rights that have advanced in the past two years.
Armacost said Wisconsin Right to Life anticipates that the ultrasound bill will be challenged legally in Wisconsin as well. She said abortion providers “intensely dislike” Sonya’s Law because of the added provision that requires abortion doctors have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the clinic.
Nash, with the Guttmacher Institute, said the hospital admitting privileges provision is a new trend in the effort to stop abortions. There are five states (Kansas, Tennessee, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota) with such laws. A similar law was blocked by the courts Friday in Alabama.
In Mississippi, doctors with the state’s only abortion clinic in Jackson failed to obtain admitting privileges, prompting the Center for Reproductive Rights to file suit on the clinic’s behalf. An injunction was granted to allow the clinic to continue operating until a final decision is reached by the court.
Nicole Safar, public policy director with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said the admitting privileges provision tucked in the bill is so crippling to clinics because it essentially gives hospitals the ability to decide if abortions should be allowed in their communities. She added about 50 percent of hospitals in Wisconsin are Catholic hospitals, which often do not condone the procedure.
The criteria for physicians to obtain hospital admitting privileges vary from hospital to hospital. Some require the physician to admit a set number of patients a year, a bar an abortion doctor would rarely meet as so few patients need to be taken to a hospital.
In practical terms, Wisconsin’s ultrasound bill will have the same affect as in Mississippi: it will cause the closing of an abortion clinic in Appleton.
“The clinic will close as soon as the governor signs the bill,” Safar said.
That will leave three abortion clinics in Wisconsin; two in Milwaukee and one in Madison, with Planned Parenthood operating
two of them.
Nash and Safar agreed the admitting privileges provision has nothing to do with making the abortion procedure safer for the woman. Nash said less than 1 percent of abortions performed in the U.S. annually have complications that require hospitalization.
“Abortions are safe,” Nash said. “In the unlikely event a woman needs to go to a hospital, she has to be admitted on an emergency basis. That is a federal law.”
Wisconsin Right to Life’s Armacost said Wisconsin is also a leader on two more bills limiting abortion and contraceptives.
Assembly Bill 217 would ban sex-selection abortions and would allow a mother, father or grandparent of “an unborn child that is aborted” to sue the physician that performed the abortion. So far only Arizona, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have this law on the books. The law has been blocked in Illinois.
And AB 216 lumps together two previously separate provisions: It would prohibit insurance policies for state employees from covering abortion services, and would exempt religious organizations from covering contraception under their insurance plans.
Both of these bills passed the Assembly in June. Armacost predicted the Senate will vote on them when the legislative session resumes in the fall.
More aggressive restrictions are likely on the way in Wisconsin. One of the most restrictive abortion trends finding traction is the effort to ban abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization.
Proponents argue that at this stage of a pregnancy an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain; opponents say abortion is already illegal after viability in Wisconsin, which physicians agree is between 23 and 24 weeks. In practice, the window for women to get an abortion here would shorten by three or four weeks.
Less than 2 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks in Wisconsin, with the vast majority of women having the procedure because of serious health complications in the mother or the fetus, according to Planned Parenthood.
“A 20-week ban would put women’s health and lives at risk,” said Stephanie Wilson, a spokeswoman with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “We also think this is unconstitutional and most likely will not survive a challenge under Roe v. Wade. But most importantly, a woman and her doctor should be trusted to make these decisions, not politicians.”
This 20-week ban was included in the Texas bill Sen. Davis and thousands of Texas protesters rallied against last week. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, called a special session of the legislature this week to vote on the bill. His action all but guarantees the bill will be voted on and passed by the Republican-led legislature.
Armacost said Wisconsin lawmakers are working on a draft of a bill with a 20-week cutoff. She was unsure whether the bill would be ready in the fall or when the next session begins in January.
“We would certainly love to see it in the next two-year session,” she said. “We certainly have an interest in seeing something like that passing in Wisconsin.”
The latest collection of quick-moving legislation continues the trend of shrinking reproductive health care options for Wisconsin women.
In the previous legislative session in 2011, a bill passed that revoked the requirement that schools teach medically accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control. Districts now can teach students an abstinence-only curriculum.
At the same time, Walker, through the state budget, cut roughly $1 million in state funds for family planning, forcing the closure of four of 24 Planned Parenthood family planning clinics. These clinics are separate from Planned Parenthood’s three abortion clinics (soon to be two after Sonya’s Law is signed).
In addition, a law requiring a physician prescribing a medication abortion to be in the same room as the patient, as opposed to via the web or allowing a registered nurse or physician’s assistant to administer the drug, passed in 2012. Wisconsin is one of 10 states with this restriction.
Planned Parenthood sued and a Dane County Circuit judge issued an injunction in June allowing it to resume prescribing medication abortions until a decision is reached by the court.
As Wisconsin has fallen in line with Texas on legislation restricting abortion rights, the response by the public has been relatively muted. Legislators here are limited because they can’t filibuster, Sen. Wendy Davis-style.
Taylor said public awareness of the bills is lacking in Wisconsin. The bills were introduced and public hearings were held at the same time as the budget was being debated by lawmakers. This also pulled media attention away from coverage, she said.
Planned Parenthood organized the “Stop Playing Games with Women’s Health” rally June 11 in Madison and the Assembly Senate Democratic Committee is planning to circulate a petition urging Walker not to sign the ultrasound bill. Taylor added there needs to be more visual public opposition.
“We haven’t seen the same size of crowds like they had in Texas,” Taylor said. “And that’s going to have to happen here. Women, and men for that matter, are going to have to mobilize against these bills.”
Shayna Kurland, 26, of Milwaukee is part of an ad hoc group of reproductive rights advocates who have mobilized to make it known that there is opposition to what is happening right now in Wisconsin.
They attempted to deliver wire hangers, a visual reminder of how crude and dangerous abortions had been before they were legalized 40 years ago, to four conservative lawmakers June 20. On Tuesday, they held a rally in Gov. Walker’s neighborhood.
She said she and a few of her friends became frustrated that other groups weren’t mobilizing to protest the passage of the bills but noted the legislation moved swiftly through the Capitol, especially the ultrasound bill.
“I think a lot of people feel frustrated. It is not a battle we can win. The governor has said he’s going to sign it,” Kurland said. “But we didn’t want other women across the state to think nobody was fighting this bill. We didn’t want it to go down without a fight.” ￼
‘Wisconsin is right up there with the craziest of the crazies when it comes to restrictive policies. We’re right up there now with Texas and Oklahoma. . . I don’t think women can take much more.’ - Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a staunch pro-choice advocate and former public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.