Tim Michels and the anti-abortion extremist takeover of Wisconsin

September 3, 2022 7:00 am
WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 09: Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels greets guests at an election-night rally on August 09, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Michels, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican nomination against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who was endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 09: Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels greets guests at an election-night rally on August 09, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Michels, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican nomination against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who was endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This week we learned from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Wisconsin’s Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels and his wife donated nearly $200,000 to anti-abortion groups in Wisconsin and New York in 2020 through their family foundation. The recipients include Pro Life Wisconsin, which opposes the use of all contraceptives and aims to revise Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban to remove language providing an exception if abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother.

The donations, Journal Sentinel reporter Corrinne Hess notes, “provide a window into how Michels may approach policymaking” if he defeats Gov. Tony Evers in November. 

It’s a scary view. 

“It’s so important for us to be able to help our patients make decisions based on science and evidence and data. And Tim Michels wants to take all that away,” says Dr. Kristin Lyerly, the district legislative chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “He has no respect for the ethical principle of bodily autonomy, which is a cornerstone of medical science.”

Michels has said he supports Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban, passed the year after Wisconsin achieved statehood and 71 years before women won the right to vote.

Pro-life Wisconsin, a group to which Michels gave $25,000 in 2020, says the 1849 law doesn’t go far enough.

The group plans to push for removing the life-of-the-mother exception from the law and replace it with language that requires “equal protection” for mother and fetus, Matt Sande, Pro-Life Wisconsin’s lobbyist, told The Green Bay Press Gazette.

“He wants me to just sit there and watch my patient die, which would kill both the baby and mother,” says Lyerly.  “And then what happens to that family? It’s just inhuman.”

In polls, 60% of Wisconsinites consistently say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and large majorities of voters in both political parties say they abortion should be a legal option in cases of rape and incest. The 1849 life-of-the-mother exception is not exactly controversial. 

But anti-abortion groups’ worldview is a long, long way from mainstream.

On its website, Pro-Life Wisconsin states that the group “is opposed to all forms of artificial contraception.”

“The contraceptive mentality,” the group states, “views pregnancy as a ‘disease’ state against which women must be ‘protected’ at all costs. … without the notion of ‘unwanted’ children that the contraceptive mentality fosters, there would be no abortion.”

Most Wisconsin voters are not up for relitigating the use of contraception in 2022.  

As a politician, Michels knows this. That’s why he hastened to declare, during the Republican primary, that he does not oppose the use of birth control. But he was forced to issue that statement because his earlier comments had left his position unclear.

At a campaign event, Michels spoke reassuringly to a constituent who told him, “I’m concerned about babies’ lives being lost to these abortion pills that are being passed off as contraception. … What are your plans for dealing with that?”

“They’ll be illegal in Wisconsin,” Michels declared.

Later, his campaign insisted that Michels was not referring to the emergency contraception pills known as Plan B, and that he supports birth control, including the morning-after pill. But the campaign would not answer a reporter’s question whether Michels would sign legislation banning emergency contraception.

Wisconsin is on a razor’s edge. Just last year Gov. Tony Evers vetoed five separate anti-abortion bills. And Republicans have floated a Texas-style abortion bounty bill in Wisconsin that would reward busybody neighbors who successfully sue grandmothers and aunts and boyfriends who drive their pregnant loved ones across state lines to seek an abortion.

Former Gov. Scott Walker, when he was in the Legislature, championed a “pharmacists’ conscience clause” bill that would have allowed local Walgreens employees to refuse to dispense your birth control pills if, like Pro-Life Wisconsin, they were morally opposed to furthering the “contraceptive mentality.”

Ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this year, eliminating federally protected abortion rights, “everyone is afraid,” says Lyerly. “It’s causing so much fear, even in people seeking routine pregnancy care.”

The tone of regular OB visits has changed from joy and anticipation to caution and anxiety, she says. “Patients are asking questions about what their options are in the case that something would change in what they anticipate would be a healthy pregnancy.”

One patient, with a high-risk pregnancy, was fearful that if her life was in danger her doctor might choose to save the baby and let her die. “She needed a lot of monitoring, but she stopped going to her appointments,” Lyerly says. “Here she was putting her life at risk because of misinformation and fear.” 

In this strained climate, Wisconsin doctors are trying to do right by their patients. To those who are scared about what might happen if something goes wrong in a pregnancy, “we try to provide reassurance that there is a path,” Lyerly says. “We have colleagues in Illinois [who can perform abortions]. I provide abortion care in Minnesota, where I happen to be licensed. Some of us travel to border states.”

But the pressure is still compromising the quality of care for patients in Wisconsin who are under extraordinary stress. 

Because of the 1849 law’s requirement that three doctors sign off on the necessity of an abortion to save the life of the mother, there have been delays in the midst of crisis situations.

Lyerly herself has been in the agonizing situation of trying to decide when she can legally intervene: While a fetal heartbeat is detectable, even a doomed pregnancy and a dangerous prognosis don’t necessarily meet the  “necessary to save the life of the mother” test. 

She summed up the agony in a tweet:

“On conservative talk radio they use buzzwords like ‘abortion up to birth,” Lyerly says. That’s misleading. Her patients who have abortions late in their pregnancies are devastated. “These are wanted pregnancies where something goes wrong. It’s heartbreaking. People are grief-stricken. So to assault them and make them look like ugly, evil people is so wrong,” she says.

That’s one reason she is motivated to speak out for her patients. “They can’t tell their stories, they’ve been so shamed and hurt.”

The misleading rhetoric about abortion is “all voter manipulation. It has nothing to do with medical care,” in Lyerly’s view.

A few simple scientific facts deflate the fantastical claims of the anti-abortion crusaders.

Neither Plan B, which prevents ovulation, nor the IUD, which causes an inhospitable environment within the uterus so fertilization doesn’t occur, is an “abortifacient” as ProLife Wisconsin claims. 

Nor is the storied “moment of conception” very easy to pin down.

“The truth is, there are a lot of eggs and sperm unions that happen that just wash out,” Lyerson explains. “It’s not unusual for a fertilized egg not to implant — we estimate it happens 50% of the time. So defining that moment [of conception] and making it sacred is really impossible.”

Views on pregnancy and the beginning of life have changed over time. Likewise Wisconsin’s abortion policies have shifted since 1849, as documented in a 2022 Legislative Reference Bureau report, “A Brief History of Abortion Laws in Wisconsin.” 

Originally, Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban applied to “the willful killing of an unborn quick child.” Quickening, or detectable fetal movement, was considered the point at which life began. 

But in 1858, legislators removed the world “quick” from the 1849 ban and imposed penalties of fines and imprisonment not just on doctors and midwives but also on “every woman who shall take any medicine, drug, substance, or thing whatever, or shall submit to any operation or other means whetever with intent to procure a miscarriage.”

Dr. William Henry Brisbane, a doctor who crusaded against “administering drugs and injections either to prevent conception or destroy the embryo” took credit for the changes to the law.

Only after the 1973 Roe decision did the Wisconsin Legislature revise the law  — by then  obsolete — to remove penalties for women who sought abortions. 

Reading about the legislators, all of them male, debating how to punish women who sought to control their own fertility gives you a feeling of revisiting the Dark Ages.

If Michels and his anti-abortion allies have their way, we will be going back there again.


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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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.