Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday signed an executive order calling a legislative special session to repeal Wisconsin's 173-year-old criminal abortion ban.
The move is effectively symbolic, as the Republican-led Legislature is not obligated to take action on any bills. But it sends a message about the parties' stances on the issue ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"Every single Wisconsinite should have the right to consult their family, their faith, and their doctor to make a reproductive health care decision that is right for them," Evers said in a statement. "And every single Wisconsinite should be able to make that deeply personal decision without interference from politicians who don’t know anything about their life circumstances, values, or responsibilities."
If a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court holds and Roe is overturned, abortion would become difficult to access in many states, and illegal in some, including Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has had a criminal abortion ban on the books since 1849, but it has been unenforceable since 1973 under the Roe decision.
Under Wisconsin's currently unenforceable ban, doctors who perform abortions can be found guilty of a class H felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. The law includes exceptions for an abortion that is deemed medically necessary to save the mother's life, but does not make exceptions for cases of rape, incest or the mother's physical or mental health.
The ban was amended in 1985 (post-Roe) to apply penalties to physicians but not to women who seek abortions.
Sen. Kelda Roys and Rep. Lisa Subeck, both Madison Democrats, are the co-authors of a bill that would repeal the ban. Democrats have introduced versions of this legislation multiple times without success — even when, a little more than a decade ago, the party had control of both branches of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
"When and if to become a parent is one of the most personal and consequential decisions an individual will make, yet a pending Supreme Court decision threatens our ability to make these decisions privately and without interference from politicians," Subeck said in a statement praising Evers' special session call.
Evers has called other special sessions on issues including gun laws and school spending. In each case, Republican legislative leaders have gaveled in and immediately adjourned.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu confirmed the Senate will do exactly that with the latest call.
"Wisconsin law has not changed and our pro-life position has not changed. Killing innocent babies is not health care," LeMahieu said in a statement. "We will gavel out of another blatantly political special session call from this partisan governor."
A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The relationship between the governor and legislative leaders is strained beyond policy disagreements. Vos said last month, at the Republican Party of Wisconsin's state convention, that he and Evers hadn't spoken in a year-and-a-half. LeMahieu said he and Evers had only spoken a handful of times.
In a statement, Wisconsin Right to Life legislative director Gracie Skogman urged legislators to preserve the state's abortion ban.
"We are disappointed but not surprised by Gov. Evers’ disregard for the lives of preborn children in Wisconsin. We urge our state legislators to protect Statute 940.04," Skogman said. "Wisconsin Right to Life will continue to advocate for the right to life for all, to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to be born and live in a state that defends life."
Wisconsin Right to Life executive director Heather Weininger said the organization "will continue to peacefully advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves."
Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling accused Evers of "super-charg(ing) an already highly-charged issue."
"This is political, partisan grandstanding. It’s also presumptive. The Supreme Court has not issued its final decision on the Dobbs case that could overturn Roe v. Wade. To ask the state Legislature to repeal the law before that decision comes down is irresponsible," Appling said in a statement. "Additionally, if the issue does come back to the states, the people deserve the opportunity to debate what we want to do."
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin executive director Tanya Atkinson applauded Evers' actions, saying in a statement that there is "no time to waste" on repealing the ban.
Since he was elected in 2018, Evers has vetoed several bills that would have restricted access to abortion in Wisconsin.
Reaction to the leaked opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito — which the court has confirmed is authentic but not final — has effectively split along party lines. While many Republicans are cautiously optimistic about the court’s final ruling, which is expected this month, Democrats are presenting themselves as the last line of defense against efforts to limit access to abortion.
Evers’ position puts him in stark contrast with the Republicans angling for the chance to unseat him in November. Wisconsin Right to Life has endorsed former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and businessman Tim Michels, while Pro-Life Wisconsin is backing businessman Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun. Every Republican gubernatorial candidate has spoken in support of banning abortion with no exceptions.
The last time the Marquette University Law School asked about the issue, in October 2021, 61% of Wisconsin voters surveyed supported abortion being legal in all or most cases, while 34% believed it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Among those surveyed, support for legal abortion was highest among Democrats and voters who leaned in that direction; 81% of those voters believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The same was true of 54% of self-identified independents, and of 41% of Republican (and leaning Republican) voters.
Fifty-four percent of Republican voters and those who leaned in that direction supported banning abortion in all or most cases, compared to 17% of Democrats (and leaning Democrats) and 23% of independents.