Protesters marched a mile up State Street from the University of Wisconsin campus in subfreezing temperatures. Photo by Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner.
Protesters from around the nation packed every level of the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda on Sunday to voice their frustration and opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that nullified federally protected abortion rights, giving states the final say on whether the procedure is legal.
The ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization resurrected an 1849 abortion ban in Wisconsin, which doesn’t include exceptions for rape or incest. Organizers of the “Bigger Than Roe” March, which fell on the 50th anniversary of the Roe decision, sought to bring attention to Wisconsin’s upcoming state Supreme Court election, which could shape state abortion law for years to come.
“50 years ago today, the [U.S.] Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that we had the right to access abortion care, and while Roe no longer stands, we celebrate Jan. 22 as an anniversary of a different kind, a more somber one,” said Rachel Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, during the rally. “It is the first day that many of us in this country, including in this state, do not have bodily autonomy.”
The “Bigger Than Roe” march in Madison served as the flagship action for this year’s annual Women’s March with other sister marches taking place across the country. The national organization chose Wisconsin’s capital city due to the spring election for a seat on the state Supreme Court.
Four candidates, including two conservatives — Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly — two liberals — Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Circuit Janet Protasiewicz — are running to fill the seat of retiring Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative who served two 10-year terms on the state’s highest court. The primary will be held Feb. 21, and the top two vote-getters will move on to the April 4 general election.
“These are the people that get to decide whether the 1849 abortion ban stands,” Amadi Ozier, an organizer with Madison Abortion & Reproductive Rights Coalition for Healthcare (MARRCH) told the crowd.
The Supreme Court, which currently has a 4-3 conservative majority, will likely rule on the fate of Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban in the near future. Under the ban, physicians face potential felony charges if they provide the procedure.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court in June 2022, immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, arguing that Wisconsin’s pre-Civil War abortion ban should be repealed because it conflicts with other statutes that were passed after Roe v. Wade. It could be many months before the case is settled as it is slowly making its way through court. Most recently, one of the defendants, Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Kaul lacks standing in the case and the lawsuit seeks to improperly restrict prosecutorial discretion. Kaul filed a new brief last week arguing against the motion.
Gov. Tony Evers supports the lawsuit, and has expressed doubt that a solution could be found through the Legislature.
“Abortion is health care! Health care is a right,” the crowd chanted in the Capitol rotunda, after marching a mile up State Street from the University of Wisconsin campus in subfreezing temperatures. Hand-made signs declared: “Keep your beliefs out of my briefs,” “I will aid and abet abortion” and “Women’s rights are human rights.”
Speakers at the rally urged attendees to vote for the liberal candidates for the Supreme Court and to encourage their friends and families to do the same.
Mary Stoffel, a 62-year old OB-GYN based in Madison, said she attended Sunday’s march to help generate energy around the Supreme Court election. She said she is “appalled” that the issue of abortion rights is being revisited, especially as she has witnessed the impact of restricted abortion access through her work.
“It makes women afraid — more afraid than usual — of what happens if they find out that there’s an abnormality with their baby. Now it’s an extra two or three layers of ‘What’s going to happen if they don’t have any choices?’ said Stoffel. “It also makes it very difficult if women have complications that could be life-threatening as far as will we be able to provide adequate care for them.”
Stoffel also said people who don’t practice medicine have no business legislating on the issue, and should instead leave the decisions up to physicians.
While Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats look to the courts for clarity on Wisconsin’s laws, Republican lawmakers have said they would consider possible legislation amending the current abortion ban to include rape and incest exceptions. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has said he would support adding the exceptions and would be willing to have victims of sexual assault be required to file a police report before being able to get the procedure.
Republican lawmakers also recently blocked Democratic attempts to put a nonbinding advisory referendum on the April ballot that would have asked voters if Wisconsin’s abortion ban should be repealed.
Stoffel said she is also concerned that current laws restricting abortion will lead to more laws that infringe on people’s bodily autonomy.
“What is next? Legislating birth control?” Stoffel said. She held a sign that said, “If they can control what I have to do with my uterus, can they next mandate that someone is forced to donate a kidney?”
“That sounds ridiculous, but it’s really not,” Stoffel said. “It’s an extension of that lack of body agency. Everyone should be able to decide what they get to do with their body.”
Wisconsin’s neighboring states of Illinois and Minnesota protect abortion access.
Elise Richey, 24, said she traveled with her mom from Rochester, Minnesota to attend Sunday’s action. She said she was encouraged to start attending abortion protests, including one in La Crosse, when the first leaks about the Supreme Court decision happened.
“We shouldn’t have to keep doing this,” Richey said. “I’m lucky that I live in a state where it’s safe, but everyone deserves to have equal rights, including me and everyone else with a uterus.”
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