Commentary

Wisconsin is not out of the woods on abortion 

Women in our state are keeping a wary eye on Texas

December 22, 2023 5:00 am
Abortion ban bill rally with sign: Don't mess with Texas women

When a Texas mom who was suffering from tragic pregnancy complications became the first adult woman to ask a court for permission to receive an abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned, a judge agreed, but then her doctors were threatened with felony prosecution and the Texas Supreme Court overturned the decision. That case offers a preview of what could happen in Wisconsin. | Getty Images

Wisconsinites breathed a sigh of relief this month when Dane County Judge Diane Schlipper ruled that our 1849 “abortion ban” doesn’t actually apply to consensual abortions. On the strength of that ruling, Planned Parenthood has begun offering abortion services again at clinics in Madison, Milwaukee, and Sheboygan for the first time since the 2022 Dobbs decision ending federally protected abortion rights.

But the battle over abortion rights isn’t over. Sheboygan District Attorney Joel Urmanski is appealing Schlipper’s ruling, pushing for a full felony abortion ban. Urmanski previously promised to prosecute anyone involved in providing an abortion under the 1849 law.

And now, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has floated the idea of a ballot initiative asking voters to cut back the window for getting a legal abortion in Wisconsin from the current 20 weeks of pregnancy to 12 or 15 weeks.

Gov. Tony Evers has vowed to veto such a measure, pointing out that Wisconsin voters roundly rejected GOP meddling with their reproductive health care in recent statewide elections, including the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, which could be seen as a referendum on abortion rights. But the Republicans continue to try to push their way into the gynecologist’s office to stand between Wisconsin women and their doctors.

We already had a taste of the dystopian vision Republicans want to impose on us after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. One Wisconsin woman was left to bleed for 10 days from an incomplete miscarriage after a hospital turned her away because doctors there were worried about proving in court that her life was in danger. They forced her to wait, risking a serious infection.

If you want to know what’s in store for our state if the Republicans have their way, look to Texas and the horrific case of Katie Cox.

Cox, a mother of two young children, was excited about her third pregnancy, and then devastated to learn about the fatal fetal abnormalities that meant her baby would be born dead or die shortly after birth. The genetic condition, trisomy 18, not only doomed Cox’s fetus, it was causing her own health to deteriorate and threatened to make her unable to ever have children again. Cox became the first adult woman to ask a court for permission to have an abortion in the new, post-Roe era. Her appeal was granted. But before she could end her dangerous pregnancy, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened, threatening her doctors and hospital staff with felony prosecution if they helped her. The Texas Supreme Court is dominated by right-wing anti-abortion fanatics. One of them, John Devine, the Texas Observer reported, bragged about attending 37 protests outside women’s health clinics and about his own wife having carried a dangerous pregnancy to term only to watch their hours-old baby die. The Court agreed with Paxton.

Cox ultimately made it out of state to receive an abortion. Under Texas’ abortion “bounty law,” anyone who drove her could have been prosecuted and the neighbors who pursued them and turned them in could receive a pay-out from the state. 

Wisconsin Republicans have proposed that our state also adopt a “bounty law.” 

Cox was already 20 weeks along by the time she was able to get an abortion. If Vos’ measure cutting back the window for legal abortion in Wisconsin were successful, she would have been denied care in our state.

What are Republicans thinking? It’s very clear that voters in Wisconsin and across the nation don’t support politicians inserting themselves in our private health care decisions. The results of abortion ballot measures all over the country show that voters support abortion rights. 

As with his pledge to investigate and root out diversity equity and inclusion programs throughout the state, on abortion it looks like Vos is posturing — making a political appeal to the GOP culture-warrior base without any actual plan to make policy. He knows about as much about the DEI programs he is railing against as he does about the medical complications that make abortion a very necessary option in pregnancies gone wrong.

It was chilling to read the Texas Supreme Court’s arrogantly uninformed opinion in the Cox case. 

Cox described her situation plainly: “I do not want to put my body through the risks of continuing this pregnancy. I do not want to continue until my baby dies in my belly or I have to deliver a stillborn baby or one where life will be measured in hours or days.”

“No one disputes that Ms. Cox’s pregnancy has been extremely complicated … ” the justices wrote. “Some difficulties in pregnancy, however, even serious ones, do not pose the heightened risks to the mother the exception [in Texas’ abortion statute] encompasses.”

Cox, they ruled, was out of luck. She would have to go through the physical and emotional anguish of continuing her doomed pregnancy. If as a result, as her doctors testified was likely, she would never be able to have any more children, so be it.

No politician or elected judge should be able to exercise that kind of power. Wisconsinites must do everything in our power to make sure it can’t happen here. 

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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.

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