Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout filed paperwork in June to explore a run for governor of Wisconsin, but her record on abortion rights could spell trouble for her bid.
Vinehout told the Wisconsin State-Journal last month that she has formed an exploratory committee but has not yet decided on whether to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker for a third time.
Vinehout suggested in 2013 to the Capital Times that her position on abortion rights had evolved, but Justin Wipperfurth, a legislative aide in her office, told Rewire by email that “Kathleen has always been pro-choice since her younger years.”
When asked to clarify the state senator’s position, Vinehout’s office forwarded Rewire a document on her voting record, along with with a statement: “Having a baby or an abortion is an intensely personal decision. Such a decision is private and emotional: one that a woman makes with her doctor, her family and her faith”
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“My sister almost died of a self-induced abortion,” Vinehout’s statement reads. “I have seen firsthand the horror of what happens when access is limited and needed medicine, medical procedures, or care is not available. That is why I have voted throughout my career to make abortion legal, safe, and accessible.”
Vinehout’s record, however, is not as straightforward.
In 2004, prior to her first run for office, Vinehout did an interview with the National Catholic Reporter that touched on her “pro-life” views. In the interview, Vinehout expressed worry that her opposition to abortion care could spell trouble when it came to receiving financial support from labor unions and environmental groups. “Vinehout plans to soft-peddle her pro-life stance when she runs for office,” the publication reported.
“If somebody asked, ‘How do you feel [about abortion],’ I’d tell them,” Vinehout told the Reporter, which added that she would “go out of her way to avoid the ‘pro-life Democrat’ label.”
Vinehout later claimed her comments to the outlet were taken out of context, and she had neither discussed running for office nor labeled herself “pro-life” in the interview.
In an email to Rewire, Vinehout’s office confirmed that the Wisconsin Democrat had worked with the anti-choice group Democrats for Life. “Many years ago, as a rural Democratic County Party Chair, Kathleen worked with the group Democrats for Life on issues of common interest—women’s access to health care, family planning and contraceptives,” said Linda Kleinschmidt, Vinehout’s chief of staff.
Vinehout was reportedly the only Democrat in the state senate in 2009 to vote against the appointment of abortion-rights supporters to state boards amid anti-choice advocates’ objections.
In a 2013 statement to the Capital Times, Vinehout claimed to have remained consistent in her position on abortion since she first ran for office. “I said I supported current law. What was current law had to do with a 24 hour waiting period and a parental consent law that had a bunch of opt-outs,” she said. “Ever since then, I’ve voted against any restrictions and there have been a lot of them.”
A 2013 post on Vinehout’s website outlined the state senator’s position that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” but also “accessible.” The post tackles one of the most contentious parts of Vinehout’s record on reproductive rights: so-called conscience clauses, which typically allow people and organizations to refuse to offer certain services under the guise of religious freedom. “I also support the Wisconsin Constitution that includes a clause to protect citizens’ individual conscience,” says Vinehout’s post, going on to describe her work on a related measure in 2008.
Speaking with Rewire by phone about Vinehout’s record, Nicole Safar, executive director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, noted that the organization endorsed Vinehout in 2006 based on a “100 percent candidate survey with us.” But after being elected Vinehout “took several troubling stances as a state legislator,” Safar said, some of which “we felt misrepresented how she explained her positions prior to the election.”
That included her work around conscience clauses. In the mid-2000s, Wisconsin “had several high-profile instances where pharmacists refused to fill a woman’s prescription in more rural parts of the state,” Safar said. After that, “Planned Parenthood wanted to set forth a policy that would ensure that a woman could get her birth control prescription filled no matter what pharmacy she went to, no matter who the pharmacist was.”
Thus the Birth Control Protection Act was born. Vinehout then introduced an amendment that, according to Safar, “essentially tried to gut” the bill by including a conscience protection clause.
Vinehout later claimed that her amendment was in line with the Wisconsin state constitution and was intended to ensure that the responsibility to fill a prescription falls on the pharmacy business, not the individual pharmacist.
While the version of the legislation with Vinehout’s amendments died, a subsequent version passed in 2009.
Because of her amendment and other related votes, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin’s board revoked its endorsement of Vinehout in 2009, the first and only time the state organization has ever made such a move, Safar said.
But Vinehout’s record seems to have shifted after Republicans took over the state senate. Since then, “Sen. Vinehout has had an absolute solid voting record to support family planning and Planned Parenthood and she has voted against abortion restrictions,” Safar noted. Now, the group and Vinehout “have a working relationship,” Safar said, and the state senator “has spoken out in support of Planned Parenthood, [and] in support of access to abortion services in Wisconsin.”
When it comes to the gubernatorial elections, Safar said, “the stakes are incredibly high for women in Wisconsin.” The state saw “a pretty significant shift in access to reproductive health care back in 2011 when Gov. Scott Walker took over and Republicans swept our state legislative body,” she said.
Walker holds radical anti-choice views, opposing abortion in all cases with no exceptions for rape, incest, or even life endangerment. He has signed a number of anti-choice bills into law, including a 20-week abortion ban and a forced ultrasound measure. Abortion restrictions signed into law by Walker have forced the state to turn over $1.6 million to abortion providers who were forced to fight the state GOP’s unconstitutional targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) measures.
“I think in general, we can say the environment has become incredibly hostile—not just towards women accessing abortion services but also towards basic reproductive health care, public health policies that ensure people have access to STD testing and treatment; birth control services and information; and even basic cancer screenings, breast and cervical cancer screenings,” Safar continued.
The governor can have a major impact on state residents’ access to care.
“Just even looking at the power that the governor in Wisconsin has administratively to ensure people have access to health care, it’s huge,” Safar said. “It would be a game-changer of a difference to have a governor in Wisconsin that believes in good public health policies, that believes in investing in reproductive health care, and that understood the important role that Planned Parenthood plays in the community here.”
Wipperfurth confirmed to Rewire that if Vinehout runs for governor, she would commit to defending reproductive rights and would seek to roll back some of the restrictions put into place by Walker.
Vinehout would join a growing list of Wisconsin Democrats considering seeking the party’s nomination in the 2018 gubernatorial race.