Top Wisconsin Republican wants to put abortion laws on a future ballot

Posted at 12:32 PM, Dec 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-22 13:32:17-05

MADISON (AP) — Wisconsin's top Republican wants to let voters decide whether to shrink the window of time in which women can get abortions, but the state's Democratic governor says he won't allow it.

Current state law bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Wednesday that he hopes to put a proposal on some future ballot that would lower the limit to somewhere between the 12th and 15th week.

“It’s probably the only way for us to put this issue to rest,” he told The Associated Press. “It has the idea of saying we're letting the people decide.”

However, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers opposed the plan in a statement issued Thursday.

“I'll veto any bill that makes reproductive health care any less accessible for Wisconsinites than it is right now,” he said.

The state of abortion laws in Wisconsin was thrown into confusion in June 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion throughout the country. The 2022 ruling reactivated an 1849 state law that conservatives interpreted as banning abortion, and abortion providers halted their operations for fear of prosecution. Planned Parenthood clinics in Madison and Milwaukee only resumed offering abortions in September after Dane County Circuit Judge Diane Schlipper ruled that the 173-year-old abortion ban outlaws killing fetuses but does not ban abortions.

Schlipper reaffirmed that decision in a final ruling earlier this month, and a Republican prosecutor appealed the ruling on Wednesday. The case is likely to end up before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which recently flipped to liberal control.

Vos argued Wednesday that passing a new abortion law would put to rest the uncertainty of waiting for judges to interpret outdated laws.

Voters in every state with an abortion-related ballot measure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe have favored the side backed by abortion rights supporters. Looking ahead to 2024, abortion could be on the ballot in many more states across the country.

Measures in Maryland and New York to protect access have already secured spots on next year's ballot. Legislative efforts or petition drives are also underway in several other states, including efforts to protect or expand abortion access in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota and Virginia; and efforts to restrict access in Iowa. Drives are on for both kinds of measures in Colorado.

Marquette University Law School polls conducted since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade have shown that a majority of Wisconsin residents opposed that ruling and support legalized abortion.

For a new abortion law to be put before Wisconsin voters, the proposal would first have to be passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Evers. It could then be placed on the ballot in a statewide election as a binding referendum. Wisconsin law does not allow voters to place questions on the ballot, and Republicans who control the Legislature have previously rejected Evers' calls to create a way for voters to repeal the 1849 abortion ban.

Evers has repeatedly vowed to veto any abortion legislation that would create stricter laws than existed under Roe, which only allowed states to ban abortion after the point of fetal viability. Doctors and researchers generally consider that point to be around the 23rd or 24th week of pregnancy.

“The bottom line for me is this: Wisconsinites should be able to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions without interference from politicians who don’t know anything about their lives, their family, or their circumstances,” Evers said Thursday.

Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, a prominent anti-abortion lobbying group, also spoke against Vos’ plan on Thursday. She called it “ill-advised” and “premature” given that the pending appeal in the abortion lawsuit could result in a more favorable outcome for conservatives.

Vos isn't the first Wisconsin Republican to call for a ballot question on abortion laws. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has repeatedly pushed for a referendum to determine when voters believe abortion should be banned, saying he thinks most people would not support allowing the procedure after the 12th week of pregnancy.

“I continue to believe that having ‘we the people’ decide the profound moral issue of abortion is the only way to find a reasonable consensus that most people will accept," Johnson said in a statement Wednesday. "One of the benefits of a one-time, single-issue referendum would be the education and discussion that would occur leading up to it. Unfortunately, with an active court case and resistance in the Legislature, a referendum in 2024 is highly unlikely.”