There it was, one of the first questions on a local Facebook thread on the leaked draft decision from the U.S. Supreme Court indicating that the high court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that granted abortion access.
“Does Wisconsin have a law on the books outlawing abortion?” someone asked.
A simple internet search reveals the poster is likely around 30 years of age, serves in local government in her Madison-area community, works with girls in a volunteer capacity, and has a job with a program at UW-Madison that is involved in civic engagement. Yet she — and likely countless other Wisconsin residents — is not aware that the state’s very old criminal abortion ban has remained on the books and would kick in if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe.
“Most people don’t think about abortion until they need one or until someone they love needs one,” says Nicole Safar, who worked for many years at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin before becoming the executive director at Law Forward, a progressive, nonprofit law firm. “It doesn’t make it unimportant to the rest of the community. It’s just not top of mind for people.”
The imminent specter of illegal abortion is likely to change that, adds Safar. “This is a moment of inflection,” she says. “The single biggest movement our country has ever experienced was the March for Women’s Lives in 2017. It was the biggest protest we’ve ever seen [based on] the mere threat of Donald Trump overturning Roe v. Wade. I think we are going to see an outpouring of activists and a new way of thinking about this that we’ve never seen before.”
Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who worked as the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin before being elected to the state Assembly, has introduced legislation multiple times to repeal the state’s criminal abortion law. “I think of all the missed opportunities,” she says. “I think there was a lack of urgency that kept it from ever being done.”
As Isthmus has previously reported, perhaps the best chance for repeal was in 2009 when Democrats controlled the state Assembly and Senate and Jim Doyle, a Democrat and strong proponent of abortion rights, was governor. But caucus leadership at the time resisted folding the legislation into the budget, and several anti-abortion Democratic legislators would not support the repeal, including former Reps. Tony Staskunas of West Allis, Peggy Krusick of Milwaukee, and Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc.
Now, says Subeck, “we have a Legislature that is so gerrymandered…that we are at a point where we can’t do it with the immediacy that is needed.”
Subeck and state Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) have introduced the Abortion Rights Preservation Act that would repeal the abortion ban, but there is little chance the Republican-controlled Legislature will advance it. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is a co-author of federal legislation that would guarantee abortion access across the country.
The leaked ruling, which the Supreme Court confirmed May 3 was authentic but not final, is sparking intense debate and speculation about the role abortion will play in the midterm elections. Candidates on both sides of the issue are furiously issuing statements and some are already fundraising on it. In a news release, Heather Weininger, Wisconsin Right to Life executive director, accuses “the left, and pro-abortion elected officials” of desperately trying to use the leaked decision to “change the narrative.
“We need to focus on defending innocent human life, and pray for the safety of the Justices,” she says.
Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin pledges to keep its health centers open if abortion is banned in the state. Says spokesperson Lisa Boyce: “We will continue to help patients find and access safe and legal abortion care.”