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Wisconsin Passes 20-Week Abortion Ban as Scott Walker Preps for Presidential Bid

Scott Walker, who has changed his positions on abortion and is planning to announce a presidential bid on Monday, has a range of bills on his desk to sign this weekend.
Photo via Flickr user John Pemble

As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gears up for his expected presidential announcement Monday, he has a number of bills, including the 20-week abortion ban, awaiting signature on his desk heading into the weekend.

On Thursday afternoon, the GOP-controlled assembly passed a bill banning all non-emergency abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The state senate had passed the measure in June.


Other budget measures concern the private school voucher program, K-12 funding, taxes, the minimum wage, and drug screening for public aid recipients.

On the abortion ban, after initially dodging his position on the measure in the Wisconsin gubernatorial election last year, Walker said he would support it in an "open letter on life." He defended his position by saying women are "most concerned" about abortion in the "initial months" after a sexual assault.

Under the provision, doctors who perform abortions after 20 weeks could face up to $10,000 in fines and get three and a half years in prison. Proponents of the bill believe fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks. Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, said during the assembly session Thursday that the bill wasn't about abortion, but about protecting children who are capable of feeling pain.

"Science now tells us that these children can feel pain … there isn't a soul in this building who would sit by and watch a child be purposefully tortured," Sanfelippo said.

But most medical literature supports the claim that it's not possible for fetuses to feel pain until the third trimester, at 24 weeks. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that evidence indicated "fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester." The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one of four major physician groups that lobbied against the bill and had signatures from 99 OB/GYN's, supports this.


Related: A Pregnant Pause As SCOTUS Considers Texas Abortion Case

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, spoke of her own experiences with multiple miscarriages and pregnancy complications at the assembly session.

"How you talk is so disconnected … you talk about abortion like it's all about death. Actually, it's about life. It's about women who are just trying to live … to have babies that are healthy," Taylor said.

Some expect a legal battle over the provision. University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Howard Schweber told VICE News if the law is challenged he doesn't think it'll be upheld because of the lack of exceptions for extreme situations. A similar abortion ban in Idaho was struck down in May because it banned some abortions before viability.

"This is one of the most extreme, most hardcore anti-abortions bills passed by any state," Schweber said. "A number of states have passed 20-week bans; very few don't have some exceptions for rape, incest, or extreme cases; and very few impose criminal penalties like this on doctors."

Schweber said the bill, which Walker specifically requested the legislature craft without exceptions and was a complete turn-around from his earlier position of leaving abortion up to women and their doctors, was the governor's attempt to establish himself with the hard-right of the Republican party. As he begins his presidential bid, the bill will likely help him in the early primaries, but Schweber said it may hurt him in later primaries or the general election bid.


Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, a lead sponsor of the bill, has reportedly said she believes the bill would be upheld. But past legislation that restricted abortion rights, which Lazich also helped sponsor, has not survived its court battle to date. In 2013, Republicans enacted a law that required admitting privileges at nearby hospitals for doctors performing abortions. The state's two abortion providers sued and a federal judge blocked the measure, before ruling it unconstitutional earlier this year. The state's attorney general has appealed the ruling.

This time Planned Parenthood, which Walker is proud to say he "defunded," won't help lead the legal challenge against the measure. While the organization is opposed to the bill, because it doesn't impact its services the organization is unable to challenge its constitutionality, Nicole Safar, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Wisconsin, told VICE News. The Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin did not respond to requests for comment.

The measure passed less than 24 hours after the assembly also finalized and passed the state's $73 million biennial budget — which had its own controversial provisions. Walker had expected the budget to pass by June 30, the end of the budget year, and had long said he would not make any announcements about his future plans or a presidential bid until afterward. The governor often touts himself as "anti-Washington," with an ability to get things done, unlike the national government.


Things did not go as planned, however, with budget proceedings taking far longer than normal. Members of the legislature reportedly felt neglected as Walker seemed to be spending more and more time touring states other than Wisconsin. Even GOP leaders bristled at what they saw as special-interest actions aimed at gaining support for his presidential bid, particularly at Walker's proposal to publicly finance a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The proposal was removed from the budget after leaders of the legislature determined they didn't have enough votes; there will now be a special session held next week.

"During the last few weeks, we have seen a broken budget process yield a stalemate between the Governor and the leaders of both houses. However, the rank-in-file members of the Legislature have been sidelined, while the special interests seem to be at the table behind closed doors," Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said in a statement in June. "Enough is enough. I would hope that my conservative colleagues in the Assembly and the Senate will fight to make the budget something more than a treasure chest for the special interests."

When it became clear that legislators weren't going to come to an agreement anytime soon, Walker retreated on his previous statement and said he would make his announcement after the end of the budget year, regardless of whether it had passed. On Thursday, Republicans rejected all 31 amendments Democrats had proposed. Eleven Republications joined Democrats in voting against the budget.


Related: Bernie Sanders Takes On Scott Walker In Front of Record Crowd in Wisconsin

The budget expands the private school voucher program, while holding K-12 funding flat. It doesn't increase property, income or sales taxes, and it will require public aid recipients to go through drug screening. It also removes the state's prevailing wage, doing away with a law that set minimum pay for construction workers on public projects.

GOP leaders distanced themselves from several measures the governor had proposed, including cuts to a prescription drug program and giving the University of Wisconsin increased autonomy from state oversight. Earlier this week, following outcry, they quickly backed away from placing restrictions on open records requests. After staying quiet on the topic, Walker's office later admitted to having a role in drafting the changes.

The budget has further strained relations between the legislature and the University of Wisconsin. The budget cuts $250 million in funding and freezes tuition over the next two years, with Walker at one point suggesting faculty increase their workload to offset the cuts. Beyond that, the budget takes away the university's valued traditions of tenure and shared governance as state statutes. A liberal bastion in the mostly red state, even conservative faculty members spoke out against the proposals.

"Outnumbered and often targeted for our beliefs by members of the campus left, constitutional conservatives like us—who take individual liberty, freedom of speech and academic freedom very seriously—have long relied on tenure to protect our right to dissent and to preserve the free exchange of ideas in academia," Donald Downs, a political science professor, and John Sharpless, a history science professor, wrote in an op-ed in Politico.

Walker has line-item veto power over the budget and has not said when he will sign it. He is expected to go on a primary state tour after his announcement.

Watch the Vice News Documentary on fake abortion clinics. 

Follow Aliya Iftikhar on Twitter: @aliyazeba