Hard Line

Scott Walker to Sign Ban on Abortions for Rape, Incest

Potentially complicating his 2016 bid, the Wisconsin governor has said he will sign a 20-week abortion bill that includes no exemption for rape or incest.

05.28.15 9:25 AM ET

When it comes to abortion, Scott Walker aims to keep his promises.

But doing so could make his life—and his almost presidential campaign—tricky.

That’s because Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature have introduced legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill is expected to get a vote in the next few weeks, before the state’s biennial budget passes. But unlike a federal bill on the issue, this legislation doesn’t include an exception allowing abortions for victims of rape or incest.

The governor plans to sign the legislation, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for Walker’s office, emailed.

Now, on the one hand, 20-week abortion bans aren’t as controversial as some on the left might expect.

A Vox poll conducted by PerryUndem Research/Communication indicated that 39 percent of Americans don’t identify as either pro-choice or pro-life.

And when a 2013 Washington Post/ABC News poll asked respondents if they would prefer that abortions be legal for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy or just the first 20 weeks, 56 percent said they would prefer abortions only be legal in the smaller window of time.

But a 2012 Huffington Post/YouGov poll indicated that 70 percent of Americans favor legal abortions in cases of rape, incest, or a pregnancy that jeopardizes the mother's life.

While governor has long touted his pro-life principles, he has also appeared to try to have the issue both ways.

He signed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood in the Badger State and requiring that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds first but then ran an ad in his 2014 gubernatorial reelection bid saying he backed legislation that “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.”

The ad caused some of his pro-life backers to have a crisis of faith and left Walker recently assuring them his pro-life credentials were unimpeachable.

In a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill with social conservative leaders earlier this month, the governor sought to ease those concerns, explaining the ad had been taken out of context.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, attended the meeting. Afterward she told The Daily Beast her group was keeping a close watch on the status of Wisconsin’s 20-week ban.

“He has an opportunity to authenticate his stated convictions, and I have every belief that he’ll do that,” she said, making it clear that all the pro-life talking points in the world wouldn’t make up for failure to move strong legislation on the issue.

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Walker is the only leading (presumed) presidential contender who is simultaneously courting national voters and running a state. His party has comfortable majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, which means he has a much easier task in pushing his agenda than blue state Republicans like Chris Christie.

With social conservatives watching his every move, getting the bill passed isn’t just helpful for his presidential ambitions; it’s essential.

But that doesn’t mean this is simple.

The legislation’s lack of exceptions for women seeking abortions could make it tougher for Walker to defend to a more moderate audience.

The absence of the exemptions differentiates it from the 20-week abortion ban that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 13, which makes exceptions for rape and incest.

That bill has stalled in the Senate.

Opponents of the Wisconsin bill, including Jenni Dye of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, charge that the language allowing late-term abortions to protect the life of the mother is too narrow.

But for some pro-life Wisconsinites, the bill doesn’t go far enough. The group Pro-Life Wisconsin issued a statement on May 8 criticizing the legislation for making an exception to save the mother’s life.

“[I]t is utter hypocrisy for proponents of the bill to decry the horror of dismembering a child through a dilation and evacuation abortion and then carve out an exception for babies whose mother’s lives may be endangered, as if those babies somehow don’t feel pain,” said Matt Sande, Pro-­Life Wisconsin’s legislative director, in the statement. “We urge legislators to refrain from co­sponsoring this bill until the medical emergency exception is fully removed.”

The state senator leading the charge for the bill, Mary Lazich, immediately fired back.

“My priority is to protect children from intentional pain inflicted by elective late term abortion,” she said in a statement. “I hope my colleagues will understand and support this bill rather than get caught up in combative political hyperbole.”

But even the fact that that debate exists may be a problem.

Whether or not there should be less of an exception for mothers’ lives isn’t the kind of conversation national Republicans likely hope to have as they head into the presidential primaries.

And this all seems to be giving a little heartburn to Robin Vos, the Wisconsin assembly speaker. Earlier this month, he expressed significant concerns about the legislation.

“Of course I am pro-life. I ran for office pro-life. I am proud to support the unborn,” he told reporters, per the Madison-based Cap Times. “When I ran for office, I have always taken to allow for exceptions for rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. This bill has one of those exceptions: it sounds like it has one for when the mother’s life is in danger ... so we’ll have to have a caucus discussion to decide whether or not we want to have possible amendments or if we even want to move the bill at all. We just haven’t talked about it.”

The bill is moving now, and without the exceptions Vos said he wants. It’s conceivable, but certainly not guaranteed, that Republicans will amend it in committee to include those provisions. And this highlights the extraordinarily unusual situation Walker finds himself in.

On the one hand, he’s a conservative governor helming a putatively blue state that hasn’t voted for the Republican presidential nominee since 1984.

On the other hand, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature is arguably even more conservative than he is, and has successfully pushed him further right than he may be comfortable with. Remember that the governor initially expressed skepticism about the timing of a push to pass anti-union Right to Work legislation, only to sign it after conservative lawmakers got it through the legislature.

Walker hasn’t criticized the 20-week abortion legislation, and he’s committed to signing it.

And he would face sharp criticism from Democrats regardless of whether or not it makes rape and incest carve-outs.

And in the Republican primary, it shouldn’t be a problem at all.

But still...