Republicans reject amendments to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban

By: - June 30, 2023 4:00 am

Assembly Democrats introduced an amendment on Thursday that would have repealed Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Wisconsin Republican lawmakers — 63 Assembly representatives and 22 senators — voted this week to uphold the state’s 1849 abortion ban, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest. The vote comes a little over a year after the U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization eliminating federally protected abortion rights.

During their respective floor sessions, Democrats in the Senate and Assembly introduced amendments that would have added language in the 2023-25 budget bill to repeal the ban, which holds that any person — except the mother — who intentionally destroys the life of an unborn child could be found guilty of a felony. The law’s only exception is when a “therapeutic abortion” is performed by a physician to “save the life of the mother.” 

This marks the first floor vote lawmakers have taken on the issue since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Wisconsin doctors stopped providing abortions. 

The Republican-led Legislature has previously refused to take up the issue on the floor. Gov. Tony Evers called a special session in June 2022 shortly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to take up the 19th century ban, and called another in October 2022. Republicans lawmakers gaveled in and out of the sessions without any discussion. 

“We woke up one day just over a year ago with less freedom than we did the day before when we went to bed. It’s a problem that affects us at the most core level,”  Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said during the Assembly floor session. “How can we be free if we can’t make our own decisions about when and if we are going to bear children, when and if we are going to start a family, if we don’t have the bodily autonomy to be able to have that level of self-decision?” 

Subeck said that the policy deserved to be discussed by lawmakers, and since bills are often introduced, referred to committee, but never put on the floor, this was a way of having the issue discussed.

Democrats have introduced legislation this session to repeal the 1849 ban and Republicans introduced other legislation that would amend the ban to update the “life of the mother” exception and add rape and incest exceptions to the current law. None of the legislation has received a hearing.

The rejection comes despite polling that shows a majority of Wisconsinites support legal abortion.

According to a Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday, 66% of Wisconsinites say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases — an increase from previous polling on the issue. In a June 2022 Marquette Law School poll, 58% of Wisconsinites said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said Republicans have refused to listen to the majority of people in Wisconsin by restoring abortion access and by continuing to reject policies including expanded Medicaid postpartum coverage and increased investments in child care and school safety during the Senate’s Wednesday floor session on the budget.

“It’s clear that here in Wisconsin politicians should not be in our doctors’ offices,” Roys said. “We know that abortion is health care and that the vast majority of the folks in Wisconsin believe that safe, comprehensive reproductive health care should be accessible to all women and a decision for women themselves.” 

If the 1849 abortion ban were repealed, Wisconsin would return to operating under a web of other abortion regulations — many of which were passed following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. These laws include requirements that physicians rather than nurses or midwives perform abortions, parental consent requirements for minors and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. 

However, movement on abortion has been frozen in Wisconsin since the overturn of Roe v. Wade in part because of a case that is making its way through the courts. The case filed by Attorney General Josh Kaul seeks to strike down the ban, arguing that the 1849 ban is not valid due to the subsequent  laws regulating legal abortion.


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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.