Post-Election: Will Wisconsin Be the Next Battleground Over Pro-Choice, Pro-Health Policies?

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Post-Election: Will Wisconsin Be the Next Battleground Over Pro-Choice, Pro-Health Policies?

Amie Newman

Governor-elect of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has worked hard over the years to wrest control away from women when it comes to their own medical and health decisions.

Updated 11/24/10, 6:10pm EST

Governor-elect for Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has worked hard over the years to wrest control away from women when it comes to their own medical and health decisions. During his time in the state legislature, Walker wrote a bill that would, according to Planned Parenthood, “allow pharmacists to deny women’s doctor-prescribed birth control” as well as sided with “big insurance companies who refused to provide coverage of prescription birth control as well as maternity care, mammograms and cervical cancer screenings.” 

Walker is as far from the state’s current Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, on women’s health issues as one can get. Doyle has been a key women’s health and rights supporter over the years. And while the voters elected Walker, Nicole Safar, Legal & Policy Advisor for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, says that voters didn’t necessarily agree with him on these issues in particular – they didn’t vote on the issues about which Walker presented himself as “far to the right” during the campaign. Still, the make-up of the state legislature also “dramatically shifted” notes Safar.

“Not only did we lose many pro-choice advocates who were replaced with anti-birth control advocates but the leadership is extremely conservative on this issue.”

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Safar says that some of those include legislators, like State Representative Daniel LeMahieu (now on the Joint Finance Committee) who sponsored a bill in 2006 which passed the State Assembly, banning college campuses from advertising, prescribing or dispensing emergency contraception; it was written so broadly, however, that it may have banned all prescription birth control. Is this what Wisconsin residents can expect, in terms of their reproductive and sexual health care access and ability to make their own health care decisions, from a a new set of state leaders?

Safar is not so sure. “If they push too far to the right too quickly there will be significant backlash from residents.” She says that post-election polls show that independent voters supported Walker despite feeling “very uncomfortable” about his extreme stances on social issues. Those who expressed they were “very worried” about the economy voted for Walker by a 70 to 30 percent margin. In fact, the more “divisive” issues, like abortion, took a back-seat to the economy for voters in the state, as they did around the country when it came to supporting candidates.

In his gubernatorial campaign, Walker was endorsed by the extreme, anti-birth control, anti-choice group Pro-Life Wisconsin, and he supports extreme restrictions outlawing abortion across the spectrum – believing that young women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest should be forced by the government to carry their pregnancy to term. In their endorsement the group called out Walker’s belief that “unborn children are persons deserving full legal protection” as a key reason for their support. The group’s mission includes total opposition not only to abortion in all cases but to birth control as well. Robin Marty, writing on Rewire, quotes Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin as noting that:

Pro-Life Wisconsin opposes all forms of FDA approved methods of contraception, including birth control pills and condoms. In the 2007 Senate hearing on the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act, a Wisconsin law requiring emergency rooms to provide rape victims with information about and access to emergency birth control to prevent pregnancy, Pro-Life Wisconsin Legislative Director Matt Sande explained that the “consistent” position of the organization is that birth control causes abortion, and that they find contraception and abortion equally objectionable.”

Given that Walker seems likely to walk a resolutely anti-choice line in his role as Governor of the state, and that the state legislature leadership is anti-choice, what might women of all ages, young adults needing sex-ed, and those who wish to plan for their families without government intrusion, as well as health providers themselves look forward to in terms of policies related to reproductive and sexual health?

Safar puts it bluntly: “We’re hoping he [Walker] beomes a little more moderate but he hasn’t given any indication he would.”

In his first official act as Governor, in fact, Walker intends to authorize the state’s Attorney General to join the group of nearly two dozen AGs from around the country in the Florida lawsuit charging the unconstitutionality of the health reform law.

On November 1st, under Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, Wisconsin implemented a plan to make permanent the state’s expanded Medicaid program which provides free contraception to low-income residents ages 15 – 44 years old, doing away with the requirement that the state re-apply to the program each year. The plan, under the new health care reform law, allows the state to “continue providing free birth control pills, vasectomies and other contraceptives (as well as Pap smears and sexually transmitted infection testing) to more low-income people than some states without having to periodically reapply, as the state must do now.” Though the plan hasn’t actually been approved by the federal government yet, the state has gone ahead under the assumption that it will.

Pro-Life Wisconsin and other anti-choice advocacy groups have made it a priority to attempt to block access to the program by low-income young adults.

Walker has said that Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, BadgerCare, should be cut completely, in fact.

Lon Newman, executive director of Wisconsin’s Family Planning Health Services, says that while he can only speculate as to what anti-choice state leaders may attempt to push through this session, advocates in the state are preparing to defend against a host of state legislative attacks, including the fight to eliminate teens from eligibility for the Medicaid-paid family planning access program. In addition, however, Newman notes that they could be looking at a push to defund family planning services in general, and an attempt to repeal the state’s Healthy Youth Act, which provides for medically accurate, age appropriate, unbiased, sexuality education in middle and high schools which offer human growth and development classes for students. The act was signed into law by Governor Doyle earlier this year.

Safar says that Planned Parenthood’s “number one priority”  this upcoming session is to protect family planning in Wisconsin. Planned Parenthood serves 75,000 patients in Wisconsin and the total family planning network (including Newman’s Family Planning Health Services) in the state serves between 120,000 and 150,000 patients in total. “Maintaining our ability to provide effective family planning provision to those patients – that’s our priority,” Safar says.

Two years ago “Compassionate Care for Rape Victims” was launched in Wisconsin – a program to ensure that women who have been the victim of rape have access to emergency contraception (EC) – and Newman also is steeling for a potential push from Catholic agencies to lobby for “conscience protections” which would allow them not to provide the EC. Earlier this year a survey found that 22 percent of state hospitals were still not complying with the law. 

In regards to abortion legislation, the legislature may add to the long list of restrictions already in place in the state. The state imposes mandatory waiting periods, state-directed counseling, parental consent and funding prohibitions, says Safar, and fetal pain legislation may be next. 

In 2006, the Wisconsin legislature passed a “Fetal Pain” bill which would have required physicians who provide abortions at twenty weeks or later, to tell the women undergoing the procedure that abortion can cause substantial pain to the fetus. Governor Doyle vetoed the legislation. But with a new anti-choice sheriff in town, will Wisconsin physicians and women be in for more government intrusion?

Despite the potential for an infusion of intrusive anti-choice bills, Newman is interested in a pro-active agenda for reproductive health advocates. Safar says she’s proud that advocates in the state were able to get pro-active legislation like the Healthy Youth Act signed into law, as well as legislation opposing pharmacy refusal, recently. Other pro-active bills may include a push to mandate that so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” post what Newman calls “truth in advertising disclaimers” providing clarity that they do not provide birth control services, or referrals for birth control or abortion. In addition, Newman would like to see a revision of the state laws related to rape victims and paternity issues. Specifically, he says, research is needed into strengthening laws related to child support and Medicaid benefits in order to be more sensitive to rape victims who are impregnated by their attacker.

Despite the challenges ahead, though, both Safar and Newman seem bright-eyed. Newman looks towards the outcomes of a Wisconsin Young Women’s Agenda, organized by the Wisconsin Women’s Network, on December 3rd. Safar says that 2011 is Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin’s 75th birthday.

“We’ve been providing care for patients in Wisconsin for seventy-five years and we’ve seen difficult political times like this before. We will protect our patients and continue providing care. It’s a much different environment – it will take a lot more organizing and educating and it’s not going to be easy but we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”