Commentary

Under a gerrymandered map, a Wisconsin legislator can compare women to farm animals 

January 30, 2024 5:15 am

A Republican legislator's claim that his experience as a vet makes him an expert on abortion shows how gerrymandering makes legislators out of touch (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Wisconsin Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) earned a lot of unwanted national media attention late last week for his remarks during a floor debate in which he said he was qualified to deny women abortion access because he’s a veterinarian. “I did thousands of ultrasounds on animals,” Kitchens declared. “ … I think I know mammalian fetal development better than probably anyone here.”

So swaggeringly confident was Kitchens in his opinion that “abortion is not health care” based on his experience with sheep and cows, he was oblivious to the splash his comment would make on social media and in news outlets across the country. Vanity Fair, HuffPost, The New Republic and the Independent jumped on the story, enthusiastically spreading the word about Kitchens “comparing pregnant women to breeding livestock.” 

During the same debate on a no-exceptions ban on abortions after 14 weeks, Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) whipped out his Bible to argue that forcing women to carry pregnancies to term under extreme conditions is a sacred tradition: “For example: Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Estimates are she was 88 years old when she was told she was going to have John the Baptist.”

How, in a state that’s evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, where a substantial majority of voters consistently tell pollsters they believe abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, do we elect members of a legislative majority who are so egregiously out of touch?

Kitchens’ and Tusler’s breezy confidence that their studies of veterinary science and the Bible qualified them to override the reproductive health care decisions of women and (human)  medical experts is a direct consequence of gerrymandering.

These guys are insulated from the general public. They’ve been drawn into safe districts where the only electoral threat they face is from an even more right-wing primary opponent. As on other issues — from legalizing marijuana to expanding health care access — where big majorities of Wisconsinites disagree with Republicans, the dominant party has grown accustomed to turning a deaf ear not just to Democratic voters, but to moderates and independents. 

Abortion is a good example of the relationship between gerrymandering and politicians who are egregiously out of touch.

According to Marquette University Law School polling data from 2012 to 2022 compiled by Wisconsin Watch, about 60% of Wisconsin voters on average said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In September 2022, after a surge of concern following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end a half-century of federally protected abortion rights, 68% of Wisconsinites told Marquette pollsters abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

While roughly two-thirds of Wisconsinites believe in legal abortion, coincidentally, over the last couple of decades, Republicans have locked in about two-thirds of the seats in the state Legislature in a state with a 50/50 partisan divide.

In recent statewide races for governor and state Supreme Court, abortion was a big problem for Republicans. But in the Legislature, which is scrambling to try to hold onto its gerrymandered maps, Republicans are still comfortable comparing women to sheep. 

That comparison might not seem as apt under new voting maps.

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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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