Commentary

Bad news Wisconsin women: The state Legislature is now in charge of your body

June 27, 2022 12:00 pm
Pro- and anti-abortion rights protesters clashed outside the Capitol in Madison on the day Roe v. Wade was overturned | Photo by Rose Cooper

Pro- and anti-abortion rights protesters clashed outside the Capitol in Madison on the day Roe v. Wade was overturned | Photo by Rose Cooper

Knowing it was coming did not make it any less of a kick in the gut.

On Friday the highest court in the land officially revoked women’s status as full people. 

The Court made history, as Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote in their scathing dissent, “rescinding an individual right in its entirety and conferring it on the State, an action the Court takes for the first time in history.” It is now up to state legislatures to decide when and if and how and under what penalties women can terminate their pregnancies, even at the very earliest stages.

Let’s set aside for a moment what The New York Times’ Supreme Court expert Linda Greenhouse describes as the “breathtaking” arrogance of Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and the three Donald Trump appointees on the Court. Two of them were installed through brazen political maneuvering, blocking a Democratic president’s nominee for more than a year, and rushing through a last-minute appointment by Trump just days before the 2020 presidential election, for the purpose of overturning Roe. 

Declaring that Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong from the start,” they threw away 49 years of legal precedent and women’s secure sense of ownership of our own bodies.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who declined to join his conservative colleagues in their decision eliminating all abortion rights, pointed to the doctrine of stare decisis: that the Court should uphold longstanding precedent that has been reaffirmed — by majorities of Republican-appointed justices in the case of Roe v. Wade.

But the new members of Court’s right wing were on a mission and couldn’t care less about such niceties. They thumbed their noses at the institutional integrity of the Court. They tossed out Roe, as the minority put it in their dissent, just because they could, substituting “a rule by judges for the rule of law.”

“The authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives,” the majority held — kicking the fundamental right of individual citizens’ bodily autonomy back to the states, to work out with a patchwork of policies that had the immediate effect of shutting down abortion in Wisconsin, sending women scrambling across the border to try to seek abortion care in neighboring states.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and his fellow members of the Republican caucus in the Legislature are delighted. Vos called the decision “a victory for life.” 

“The majority opinion correctly returns the decision-making power on abortions to state legislatures across the United States,” state Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger) said in a statement.

In some states, 12-year-old incest victims will be required by law to give birth, regardless of the physical and psychological consequences. In other states, women will remain free.

Abortion law in Wisconsin, where a law now comes into effect that was written when slavery was legal and before women had the right to vote,  is certainly not being guided by the will of the people. Pro-choice Democrats won every race in the last round of statewide elections in Wisconsin. But Republicans have locked in control of the Legislature by drawing super-gerrymandered maps that allow them to pick their own voters.

Just how out of step are they? About 60% of Wisconsin voters support legal abortion in all or most cases. But the Legislature won’t even discuss repealing or amending the 1849 statute making abortion a felony with no exceptions for rape or incest. It was galling to watch the Republicans gavel in and out of a special session called by Gov. Tony Evers last week to address repealing that ancient law. More galling still was the jubilation days later when the Supreme Court decision came down. Forcing women who don’t want to be pregnant to have babies is apparently a huge victory for Wisconsin’s Republican leaders.

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, one of the top two candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary, celebrated the Supreme Court decision and reaffirmed her commitment to Wisconsin’s “existing law” on abortion — the 1849 felony statute. Kleefisch also claimed, loopily, that overturning Roe will lead to “success for families.”

The leading GOP gubernatorial candidate, Tim Michels, added insult to injury,  promising to teach women who must now carry unwanted pregnancies to term how to be better parents. Michels, who also supports the abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest victims, said in his statement, “Life must always be protected. We should not demonize those who don’t believe that, but rather redouble our efforts to show how they can provide a high quality of life for their children.”

My favorite response to the decision came from Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) who dared her GOP colleagues to continue opposing funding for the Women Infants and Children nutrition program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, expanded Medicaid to cover low-income families, and expanded child tax credits. 

​​“Since they want to force births on women, they need to make sure they have the resources to survive OUTSIDE the womb!” Moore tweeted.

Michels should take a lesson from Moore, who has spoken out in Congress about what it’s like to be a young, low-income mother treated with contempt by policymakers, and whose decision to have an abortion was part of her effort to take the best possible care of herself and her family.

I also appreciated state Sen. Kelda Roys’ pragmatic response.“Medication abortion is safe, easy to use, and private – every person of reproductive age should order one now at AidAccess.org. It costs about $100 and takes approximately 4 weeks to arrive, so it’s important to order now before you need it.”

It’s true that self-administered, medication abortion gives women more options and more privacy. It’s one reason we are not going straight back to the pre-Roe days of the coathanger. But there is no guarantee that things won’t get even more restrictive in Wisconsin. Dr. Stephanie Findley, who operates a clinic on Milwaukee’s North Side, told my colleague Erik Gunn, that her patients have been calling and texting her saying they are deleting the app on their phones that tracks their menstrual cycles, for fear the state will take too keen an interest in monitoring their fertility, investigating late periods as possible evidence of a crime.

Sound paranoid? U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has already joined a letter demanding that two tech companies stop collecting and selling the location data of people who enter abortion clinics. And Wisconsin midwife Ingrid Andersson told me about patients who have gone to their local hospital when they had a miscarriage and were questioned as if they were criminals.

The only thing that stands between us and complete rule by a minority of extremists — including a Texas-style felony abortion ban with bounty payments for citizens who turn in their neighbors for helping women get abortions — is Evers. 

It’s a seriously sobering thought.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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