Gov. Tony Evers announced his latest plan to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban Wednesday, calling the Legislature into a special session to vote on an amendment that would allow Wisconsinites to change state law through referendum.
“The will of the people is the law of the land,” Evers told reporters on Wednesday, reading the gilded inscription off the governor’s conference room ceiling in the Capitol. "Right now in Wisconsin, when it comes to reproductive freedom, the will of the people isn’t the law of the land — but it damn well should be."
Evers’ announcement requires the Legislature, under state law, to meet in special session on Oct. 4. However, Republican leaders are poised to reject the governor’s proposal, according to the Cap Times.
The Democratic governor’s call comes after Republican Sen. Ron Johnson suggested last week Wisconsin voters should, “at minimum,” update Wisconsin’s abortion laws with exceptions for rape and incest through a statewide referendum, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Evers said Thursday he expected Johnson to support his plans based on the senator’s previous comments.
“I agree with Sen. Ron Johnson — and there’s a sentence for you,” Evers quipped, adding that “the ball is in [Republicans’] court.”
However, Johnson and Republican leaders decried the governor’s move as a political stunt designed to “divide the public” despite his previous remarks. Johnson did not say whether he would support or oppose the constitutional amendment, instead calling for a “thorough and thoughtful” abortion discussion.
“The Dobbs v. Jackson decision will now allow [a] democratic process to unfold in each state to answer this fundamental question: ‘At what point does society have the responsibility to protect life?’,” Johnson said in a statement to The Daily Cardinal. “Because of the profound nature of this decision, we should not rush the debate.”
The Republican senator was not immediately available for comment when the Cardinal asked if a referendum was part of his definition of a “democratic process.”
Wisconsin’s ongoing abortion debate
Wisconsin’s debate over abortion laws has dragged on for months since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated federal abortion rights in June.
Popular support for legal abortion in Wisconsin is well-established. According to Marquette Law School poll results released Thursday, 68% of Wisconsin voters support abortion in all or most cases and 61% oppose the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Yet, Republicans evaded Evers’ call for a special session before the repeal of Roe v. Wade earlier this year and dragged their feet to hamper Attorney General Josh Kaul’s lawsuit against the 1849 law. Kaul named three district attorneys as new defendants in the lawsuit last week in an effort to prevent further delays.
If Gov. Evers and AG Kaul’s direct legal challenge falls through and the 1849 statute — created before Wisconsin women could vote — is allowed to stand, nearly all abortions, including cases of rape and incest, would be criminalized.
Evers’ attempt to pass a constitutional amendment is his latest proposal to undo the abortion ban. If passed, Wisconsin would join 24 states where citizens can currently initiate a statewide referendum to circumvent their state legislature and directly vote on changes to state law.
However, Evers’ plan is likely to fail without support from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), who called the referendum vote a “political stunt” in a joint statement Wednesday.
“Governor Evers would rather push his agenda to have abortion available until birth than talk about his failure to address rising crime and runaway inflation caused by his liberal DC allies,” Vos and LeMahieu said.
Even if Republicans were to consider the governor’s proposal, the Assembly and Senate must pass Evers’ constitutional amendment through two consecutive sessions. The amendment must then be ratified by a statewide vote.
Underscoring the gravity of reproductive rights issues in a post-Roe Wisconsin, Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) also spoke at the conference, describing the 1849 abortion ban as “draconian.”
“Imagine being pregnant now, with abortion unavailable in Wisconsin, knowing it’s not the right time to bring a child into the world,” Roys said. “Imagine being pregnant now, knowing that something’s gone horribly wrong with your wanted pregnancy, and you go to the emergency room and wait. And you wonder, are the doctors and nurses there doing everything they can immediately to help you?”
“This is personal for every family,” Roys added. "Someone you love will need an abortion.”
Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.