Abortion special session turns into a political rally

October 5, 2022 6:45 am
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a rally at the Capitol after Republicans gaveled in and out of his special session on creating a referendum process so voters could amend Wisconsin's 1849 abortion ban | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a rally at the Capitol after Republicans gaveled in and out of his special session on creating a referendum process so voters could amend Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban | Wisconsin Examiner photo

It was over as soon as it began. Within seconds, Republican legislative leaders gaveled in and out of Tuesday’s special session, called by Gov. Tony Evers to create a referendum process so voters could amend the state’s 1849 abortion ban.

The outcome was never in doubt. Republicans made it clear from the start that they had no intention of taking up the referendum idea. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called it a “political stunt,” when Evers announced it — even though 26 other states have direct ballot initiatives that allow voters to change laws, and even though Evers pitched the idea as “bipartisan,” noting that Republican Sen. Ron Johnson recently told reporters he thinks voters should decide through a “direct referendum” whether to add rape and incest exceptions to Wisconsin’s abortion ban.

There does actually appear to be room for a bipartisan effort to reform the 19th century ban. If ever there were a strong case for updating a law, it can surely be made for this dusty pre-Civil War relic, passed by a group of men shortly after Wisconsin achieved statehood and 71 years before women got the right to vote, which suddenly came back from the dead when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Even Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-abortion groups — including groups that seek to ban all forms of contraception and that track women coming and going from Planned Parenthood clinics by capturing their cell phone data — recently reversed himself on allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest, positioning himself closer to the vast majority of voters on the issue.

But dismissing the abortion referendum drive as a “poltical stunt” was a self-fullfilling prophesy. Knowing that Republicans were planning to gavel in and out of the session without taking any action, Evers and a phalanx of other Democratic candidates proceeded to a pre-planned rally on the Capitol steps, where they denounced Republicans and turned the failed special session into a campaign issue.

You can hardly blame them. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has energized Democratic voters, especially women. “I’ve been traveling the state from Appleton to Stevens Point to Marinette, and women are angry that they’re losing rights. And now they won’t even have a say through a referendum,” said Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who was standing behind Evers at the rally. 

Democrats nationwide have good reason to see the issue as a winner in the next election, with national polls showing overwhelming support for abortion rights. The stakes are particularly high in Wisconsin.

“Nov. 8, we’ll, we’ll decide what kind of state we’re going to be forever,” Evers said in his speech. 

If Republicans win, and continue to pursue their anti-abortion policies, “We’ll be the laughing stock of the world,” Evers said at the rally, going off-script after delivering his prepared remarks. No one will want to move to Wisconsin, he added, and, since the strict ban on abortion makes it impossible for medical schools to meet national teaching standards, “our accreditation to prepare OB-GYNs will be taken away.”

Mary Stoffel and Beth Wiedel, two OB-GYN doctors from Madison, joined Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Sara Rodriguez and Democratic legislators outside the Capitol.

Wiedel denounced legislators for interfering with the care of patients who  “face health risks of continuing medically complex pregnancies against their will or rape survivors or someone who is simply not ready to start a family.”

“Abortion is health care, no matter what Republicans say,” said Stoffel. “We have to provide care to our patients every day, not some legislator,” she added, calling legislators’ ignorance about basic anatomy and physiology  “embarrassing.” 

Rodriguez, a public health nurse who currently serves in the Assembly, described being silenced by the Republican chair of the health committee when she asked questions about the medical implications of the state’s abortion ban. “He called me a nasty woman,” she said. “So for all of you other nasty women out there, I will not shut up, I will not be quiet, and I won’t give in.” 

After the rally, which featured lots of sign-waving and chants of “our bodies, our lives, our right to decide,” I asked Kaul — who is facing Republican challenger Eric Toney, the Fond du Lac County district attorney, in the attorney general’s race — how things will improve if Democrats do manage to ride a tide of female outrage to victory this year,  since we are already effectively living under the 19th century abortion ban.

He cited the Evers administration’s pending lawsuit to overturn the Wisconsin ban on the grounds that subsequent laws regulating abortion have rendered it obsolete. “That case is one pathway to overturning the 19th century ban, or to at least blocking its enforcement,” he said. “My opponent has said he’ll withdraw from that suit on Day One.” 

Kaul also holds out hope that if Democrats defy predictions of a nationwide red wave and hold onto their majorities in Congress, they will pass a federal law codifying the protections in Roe v. Wade.

Then there’s the message sent by the election itself. “If we send a message at the polls that Wisconsinites support reproductive freedom and that they’re going to elect candidates who support that, I think we’re going to see legislators respond very differently than we’ve seen them respond,” Kaul said.

“People are going to look to this election for a long time to come, to figure out how voters feel about the Supreme Court’s decision,” he added. “And again, if the message that is sent is that voters are unhappy with that decision, they disapprove of it and they want reproductive freedom, that’s going to impact the way that people in elected office vote. If the message is you can take people’s rights away and there’s no electoral consequences, then that’s going to embolden people who want to do that.”

Meanwhile, the real-world consequences of Wisconsin’s abortion ban are already becoming clear.

In a press conference Monday organized by the advocacy group the Committee to Protect Health Care, Dr. Jill Cousino,  an obstetrician who practices in southern Wisconsin, described the need to access abortion services for women who experience serious complications in pregnancy.

“One of the most common scenarios we are seeing play out in Wisconsin right now is the care of women experiencing miscarriage,” Cousino said. “At least 20% of all pregnancies will end in a miscarriage, and the majority of miscarriages occur without any medical intervention. However, life-threatening infection and bleeding can occur prior to spontaneous miscarriage, and abortion procedures and medications are necessary to save the life of the woman.”

But the 1849 ban ties doctors’ hands. “It forces us to ask how close to death a woman must be to intervene to save her. It does not allow us to provide abortion care that could prevent a serious health outcome. Instead, we have to take time to get approval to provide care which can put the patient’s health and life at risk. Pregnant women are being forced to delay life saving health care because doctors rightfully fear criminal prosecution.”

She cited the case of a Wisconsin woman who bled for 10 days unnecessarily because her doctors were afraid of breaking the law by treating her incomplete miscarriage. 

In Texas, Cousino said, a recent study shows that since the state implemented its ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, “a patient’s risk of serious pregnancy outcomes and complications have doubled.” 

Whoever is gaining or losing a political advantage from current the war over abortion, the consequences for women are lethal.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. 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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.