How anti-abortion groups are working to shape Wisconsin law

By: - March 13, 2023 7:00 am
Drawing of female reproductive system with judge's gavel and stethoscope

Drawing of female reproductive system with judge’s gavel | Laura Rosina iStock / Getty Images Plus

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal abortion protections in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was one step in the right direction, say leaders of Wisconsin’s major anti-abortion groups.

Since the landmark decision and in reaction to ongoing challenges to Wisconsin’s abortion ban, the groups have coalesced around the goal of protecting and strengthening Wisconsin’s pre-Civil War ban, which doesn’t include rape or incest exceptions. 

“We are in an incredible time here as the protest movement in Wisconsin, where no abortions have been performed since June 24, 2022,” says Matt Sande, legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin. “We want to maintain our abortion ban. We want to strengthen it.”

The groups — Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Right to Life and Wisconsin Catholic Conference — have worked to craft a united message about Wisconsin’s abortion law and have formed an informal coalition to share that message with state lawmakers and others across the state. 

Tightening Wisconsin’s current abortion ban

Wisconsin’s abortion ban, which is 174 years old as of last week, holds that any person — except the mother — who intentionally destroys the life of an unborn child could be found guilty of a felony. The only exception is when a “therapeutic abortion” is performed by a physician to “save the life of the mother.”  

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has said he would be open to finding a “compromise” on abortion by updating the current ban to include rape and incest exceptions. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has said he would veto any bills that make adjustments to the ban  and is waiting  to see what happens in the courts where the entire ban faces legal challenges.

Additional exceptions are the last thing Wisconsin’s pro-life groups want to see. 

Gracie Skogman, legislative director of Wisconsin Right to Life, says her group does not support rape or incest exceptions, but does support medical emergency exceptions. However, she says they would also like to see some clarifications in the current language of the law.

She says the language would need to ensure “that when women are faced with a life-threatening situation, that they are able to have the care that they need. Post-Roe, we have all heard heartbreaking cases and we just really want to ensure that women in Wisconsin are receiving the care they need if they’re facing a life-threatening situation.” 

After the Dobbs decision, stories of women being denied care due to the current law have circulated, including one shared by a Wisconsin physician about a woman who miscarried and then bled for several days before she received care. The hospital she visited denied her care, refusing to treat her miscarriage “because of the laws.”

Medical experts have said abortion bans can negatively impact patients, even when exceptions exist. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says abortion bans, even those with medical exceptions, can cause confusion and delay care for patients, and that physicians shouldn’t have to navigate laws to know what type of care they legally can provide for their patients.

Sande, however, argues that abortion is never medically necessary and medical exceptions, as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, aren’t actually abortions, which he describes as the “purposeful, willful destruction” of a “preborn living human.” 

The current exception for the life of the mother under Wisconsin law is too broad and undefined, Sande says, and his group  wants to tighten the language to explicitly require physicians to provide equal care for mothers and fetuses. Pro-Life Wisconsin also wants to add language to give immunity to physicians who follow the requirement. 

Pro-Life Wisconsin  also seeks to add additional protections for fetuses in the form of a personhood amendment in Wisconsin’s state Constitution, Sande says. He says this would apply the “right to life” to “every human being at any stage of development, born or unborn.” 

Juliane Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, says the coalition of groups believe that life begins at conception and circumstances of the conception don’t change that, which is why they don’t support expanded exceptions.

“We don’t all stand in solidarity very often,” said Appling. “But on this issue, regarding the current discussion that’s going on in Wisconsin about the abortion issue and about the 1849 prohibition on most abortions, we are in lockstep, absolute lockstep.”  

The groups’ vision for Wisconsin doesn’t line up with public opinion polling on the issue.

In a November poll conducted by Marquette University Law School, 65% of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 35% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. In an August poll that asked about exceptions, 84% of voters said abortion should be legal in the case of rape or incest, while 10% said it should not. 

Sande suggested that poll findings could be a result of how the questions are asked, and no matter the polls, he says, Pro-Life Wisconsin believes that abortion is never justified and that is the message his group and others are continuing to share with lawmakers. 

Appling says Wisconsin Family Action is mostly speaking on general terms with lawmakers as there has yet to be any legislation introduced this session. 

“We just let them know what the coalition’s position is and encourage them to think carefully about where they individually stand on this issue,” Appling said. “Since there’s no bill or anything out there right now, we just talk in general terms and encourage them to understand the issue and to do the right thing, ultimately, if it becomes an issue.”

Appling added that with a case working its way through Wisconsin’s courts there is still a lot of  conversation yet to come.

Stopping the Wisconsin Supreme Court from moving left

A case filed by Attorney General Josh Kaul asks the Dane County Circuit Court to provide clarity on state abortion law by declaring the 1849 ban unenforceable due to its conflict with statutes enacted after it. The case could one day be heard by Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, making maintaining conservative control of the state’s highest court a vital goal for anti-abortion groups. 

Wisconsin’s anti-abortion groups are individually mobilizing to influence the outcome of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election and stop the state’s abortion ban from potentially being ruled unenforceable sometime in the near future. 

“If the court moves left and we have an activist, liberal court, two bad things could happen concerning life,” Sande says. “The first one would be that an activist liberal court would rule [the 1849 law] unenforceable, restoring [legal] abortion back to Wisconsin. Even worse, they could find a right to abortion in our state constitution… If that happened, that would not only topple our current law abortion ban backwards but it would imperil all our pro-life laws and regulations that have been enacted over the past several decades.”  

Wisconsin Right to Life PAC, Pro-Life Wisconsin PAC and Wisconsin Family Action PAC have all endorsed conservative former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who has written about abortion being harmful and has provided legal advice to Wisconsin Right to Life in the past In  the upcoming spring election, Kelly faces liberal Judge Janet Protasiewitcz, who has said it’s a “woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion.”

“We made no bones about it,” Appling said on behalf of the Wisconsin Family Action PAC, “Our PAC endorsed Dan Kelly and we have been and we are launching a very strategic, significant effort to encourage people to get out and vote and as appropriate, and within the bounds of the law, to vote for Dan Kelly.”

The race has also drawn attention from the national anti-abortion group, the Women Speak Out PAC, which is associated with Susan B. Anthony (SBA) Pro-Life America. The PAC followed the lead of statewide groups in endorsing Kelly.

“In a lot of ways, this is chapter one, year one of the pro-life fight, as we have the ability to impact so much more with the Dobbs decision,” says Kelsey Pritchard, SBA’s director of state public affairs. She says the organization started expanding its work in states following the landmark Supreme Court decision.

Pritchard says the group is investing six figures in the race to call, text and send ads to voters. She says the group will also have “boots on the ground” in the weeks leading up to the April 4 election. 

Wisconsin is the second state Supreme Court election the PAC has gotten involved with, and they’re hoping to replicate success they found from investments in North Carolina during the 2022 midterm cycle, when two conservatives were elected. 

Expanding support for pregnancy resource centers and other policies

Beyond Wisconsin’s abortion ban, the groups are working to promote policies meant to help meet the needs of pregnant people. Skogman says pregnancy resource centers could need additional help as more and more women enter them following the overturn of Roe v. Wade. 

“The reality on the ground is we know that there are more women in Wisconsin who are choosing life and we celebrate that,” Skogman says. “But we also recognize that they do need resources and support as they’re going through that process.” 

Skogman says that Wisconsin Right to Life works with pregnancy resource centers by funneling emergency housing grants to women through the centers, and advocating for the centers in the Legislature. She says potential legislation could be modeled after programs already established in states like Texas that would funnel additional state and federal funding to these centers. 

Pregnancy resource centers already receive some funding from the state through Choose Life Wisconsin license plate program, where drivers can choose to contribute $25 that will go to these groups. The program has awarded over $200,000 in grants since 2017.

Many have criticized pregnancy resource centers for pressuring women into not having abortions and providing medically inaccurate information to women, and others have questioned whether these centers can meet women’s needs. 

Skogman says the prospect of not being able to meet needs shouldn’t stop pregnancy resource centers from trying. 

“There’s always going to be so much more that we can do and want to do,” Skogman says. “But I don’t think that should ever be a hindrance to us. We have to continue in our goal and in our mission and meet the needs that we can and there’s over 60 pregnancy resource centers in our state. Every single one of them is constantly adding extended hours, hiring a new nurse.” 

Sande said that paid family leave is one policy Pro-Life Wisconsin is hoping to see more Republicans begin to embrace. He says that they would also want to see extended Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to a year. 

“That’s a critically important period for new mothers and we want to make sure that we have healthy outcomes for moms,” Sande says.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.