When Wisconsin governor and expected 2016 GOP candidate Scott Walker found himself struggling to appeal to women in a close 2014 reelection race, he tried, however briefly, to soften his hard-line abortion stance. So why is he now poised to sign one of the country’s most extreme pieces of abortion legislation?
Today, the Wisconsin Assembly voted 61-34 to approve a categorical ban on all non-emergency abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill was passed by the state Senate in June and Walker has already promised to sign it into law.
The Wisconsin GOP’s rationale for the bill is that a 20-week fetus is capable of feeling pain. A letter from 99 Wisconsin ob-gyns in the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (PDF) says that’s not so, and available medical evidence strongly supports their claim.
Wisconsin’s 20-week ban is particularly stringent because it contains no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. But Walker’s not too worried about that possibility. In June, Walker, who is not a woman and who cannot get pregnant, said publicly, “I think for most people who are concerned about that, it’s in the initial months when they’re the most concerned about it.”
Although Walker told reporters in June that he would “sign it either way that they send it to us”—referring to the presence or absence of rape and incest exceptions—Wisconsin Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald told The New York Times later that month that Walker had specifically requested that these exceptions not be included in the legislation.
In addition to putting time pressure on survivors of rape and incest, Wisconsin’s 20-week ban will also affect women who already face significant barriers in access to abortion.
According to 2013 state figures (PDF), only 89 out of 6,462 abortions in Wisconsin occurred after 20 weeks gestational age—about 1.4 percent. Nationwide, less than 2 percent of abortions take place beyond 20 weeks. Based on these figures, a 20-week ban is not likely to significantly reduce the overall number of abortions but it will make abortion even less accessible to a select group of women.
Who are these women? As far as we can tell, they’re not the cavalier baby-killers of pro-life nightmares. A 2013 study of nearly 300 women who had received abortions later in pregnancy found that women seeking abortions after the first trimester are more likely to have trouble raising money for the procedure, have less reliable insurance coverage, and have difficulty traveling to an abortion provider. Fifty percent of these women were unemployed and 21 percent had to travel over three hours to reach a clinic.
A 20-week ban will also disproportionately impact women who have just received an anomaly ultrasound—which typically takes place between 18 to 20 weeks—requiring them to give birth even in a case of a severe or potentially fatal fetal abnormality.
Now that the Assembly has handed the bill to Walker, Wisconsin will become the 16th state to enact some form of 20-week ban, although federal courts have recently blocked similar legislation in Georgia, Idaho, and Arizona, ruling the bans to be an “undue burden” on women.
But what’s an “undue burden” for a small group of women when there’s a Republican nomination to win? Rewind to Walker’s 2014 gubernatorial reelection bid and the Wisconsin ban seems to run counter to the spirit of his old campaign.
When Democrat Mary Burke threatened to close the gap, in part, by pressing on his abortion record, Walker released a carefully worded ad in which he said that he’s “pro-life” and “support[s] legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options.” But he also maintained that his “bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor,” borrowing a popular bit of pro-choice phrasing.
“[R]easonable people can disagree on this issue,” concluded Walker, trying to pose as a reasonable person himself, and not the governor who had signed a bill requiring Wisconsin women to undergo an ultrasound before receiving an abortion. Wisconsin is one of just three states that requires abortion providers to display and describe ultrasound images before administering an abortion (PDF).
When Walker won in 2014, he dropped all appearances of staking out a middle-of-the-road position, releasing an open letter this March in which he vowed to sign a 20-week abortion ban. The letter was widely perceived as an attempt to appeal to evangelical voters ahead of his likely participation in the presidential race, which he is expected to announce on Monday.
In a remarkable coincidence, Walker’s March letter was released shortly after facing criticism from Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit that supports pro-life candidates, and just two days after drawing the ire of pro-lifers for correctly telling Fox News that he could not unilaterally overturn Roe v. Wade as president.
Walker’s hard right turn on abortion could be paying off, with the latest poll giving him an edge in the Iowa primary. Now that the 20-week ban has cleared the Assembly, Wisconsin women are set to pay the price for Walker’s campaign.