Many Wisconsin abortion foes are cheering the introduction of legislation that would amend the state constitution to extend personhood to the moment an egg is fertilized, although the state's two largest anti-abortion groups are at odds over the approach.
The legislation is patterned after a similar measure that Mississippi voters rejected earlier this month.
Critics say such measures would outlaw all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, and ban all forms of hormonal contraception, including birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs).
Wisconsin's "personhood" amendment, introduced last week by Rep. Andre Jacque, R-Bellevue, would define the terms "people" and "person" in the constitution to include "every human being at any stage of development."
Also, the phrase "all people are born equally free and independent" would be changed to "all people are equally free and independent." This would eliminate the need to be "born" to have certain inherent rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
To be enacted, the amendment would need to be passed by two successive state Legislatures, then approved by a majority of voters.
Mississippi's proposed constitutional amendment, rejected by 58 percent of voters, used more specific wording. It would have defined life "to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent." Jacque said his intent is the same — to define personhood as beginning when an egg is fertilized.
Jacque said his bill is not intended to directly challenge Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed abortion a fundamental privacy right. Rather, if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, and abortion rights decisions returned to individual states, Wisconsin needs "a true definition of human life" in its constitution, he said.
"Essentially, this is a declaration that our inalienable rights extend from the moment of conception," he said.
Regarding abortion, the intent would be to protect all fetuses "regardless of the circumstances of conception," Jacque said. As for exactly how the amendment would affect other issues, such as contraception, in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research, Jacque said those kind of details would need to be fleshed out in additional legislation at the state statute level.
Jacque said any contraception "that is meant to have an abortion-causing effect" would "need to be discussed."
Matt Sande, lobbyist for Pro-Life Wisconsin, which backs the legislation and is working closely with Jacque, said the amendment "undoubtedly" would outlaw all forms of surgical and chemical abortion. On other issues, "we don't know exactly what it would mean, but our intent is to protect the preborn child at any stage of development from any violent attack, whether chemical, surgical or experimental," he said.
Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has concluded the proposed language would ban hormonal contraception, said Nicole Safar, public policy director. "This is way out of touch with Wisconsin values," she said.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said the legislation is a continuation of the Republican Party's "extreme social agenda," adding it's also "anti-business and anti-jobs" because of its potential impact on Wisconsin's bio-medical and embryonic stem cell research sectors.
"This kind of punitive resolution causes researchers to go elsewhere," she said.
But Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, one of six Assembly co-sponsors, said he and his colleagues are fulfilling "one of the basic roles of government, which is to protect those who can't protect themselves."
In a twist, Wisconsin Right to Life, the largest anti-abortion group in the state, has come out forcefully against the personhood amendment strategy, calling it "just plain wrong for Wisconsin."
In a statement on its website, the organization says Wisconsin is "already in the best position possible to protect unborn children" because the state has a law on the books — currently superseded by Roe v. Wade — that prohibits abortion. The organization believes passage of the personhood amendment would invalidate that law. (Others, including Pro-Life Wisconsin, disagree.)
Wisconsin Right to Life also contends it would cost millions of dollars to win a ballot measure, and that, even if the effort were successful, the personhood amendment would be challenged in court and struck down.