Crowd marches from courthouse to City Hall (copy)

A crowd that included men and women alike marches from the Racine County Courthouse to Racine City Hall during an October rally that was part of a nationwide Women's March.

Last week, Gov. Tony Evers vetoed five anti-abortion bills that would restrict abortion access, including a "born alive" bill, which conflates abortion with the killing of a baby, and punishes doctors who cause the death of a child "born alive."

As a Democratic governor, Evers was widely expected to veto these bills, passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature, as he had already vetoed them in the previous legislative session. Further, Evers' public statements, both in 2019 and 2021, clearly state that he would veto any bill that “turns back the clock on reproductive rights.” Despite the previous vetoes and the statements to that effect, Evers’ vetoes of these anti-abortion bills was covered by virtually all of the Wisconsin media outlets, as well as national news organizations.

The veto of these bills is necessary for the preservation of reproductive access in Wisconsin. However, by the time they arrived at the governor’s desk, anti-abortion messaging will have been the predominant — if not sole — focus of public discussion on matters of reproductive health.

This singular focus on anti-abortion messaging is part of a larger trend, which is in part shaped by those bills that receive a public hearing in the Legislature. In theory, after introduction and committee referral, bills are granted a hearing, allowing the general public and experts the opportunity to weigh in. Only after the hearing can a committee — and the chamber as a whole — vote on the bill, which if approved, would send the bill to the other chamber to undergo the same process.

But in the last two legislative sessions, only anti-abortion bills received a public hearing. of the 29 anti-abortion bills introduced during these two legislative sessions, 19 bills (66%) received a public hearing. At the same time, none of the eight pro-abortion rights bills introduced received a public hearing.

The failure to hold public hearings for pro-abortion rights bills in recent legislative sessions is not a new phenomenon. Of the 82 anti-abortion bills introduced to the Wisconsin Legislature between 1995 and 2018, 59 (72%) received a public hearing, while only two (6%) of the 31 pro-abortion rights bills were granted public hearings.

Since pro-abortion rights bills generally do not receive public hearings, the general public does not get a chance to learn about the approach of the pro-abortion rights movement on the matter. It is true that opponents of abortion restrictions have the opportunity to testify before a public hearing when anti-abortion bills are discussed. However, their testimony is always done only as a reaction to the proposed anti-abortion restrictions. This means that pro-abortion rights supporters are required to argue against restrictive legislation, and are never able to present their own ideas as to how to promote reproductive justice.

It is clear that in the current climate, pro-abortion rights legislation stands little chance at gaining passage into law. But even in this climate, it is necessary to have multiple positions represented, especially for such a contested issue as abortion. The stark ideological bias in abortion bills that receive public hearings hurts the democratic process, manipulating and limiting the public debate. Regardless of one’s ideological point of view, this clear distortion of the process creates distrust and dissatisfaction amongst the people, leading to a further devaluation of the Legislature itself.

The governor’s veto helps to protect reproductive rights, but it does not change the fact that the public is only told one story. The purposeful subversion of the democratic process matters, and it affects us all. This is the story that should be making headlines across the state of Wisconsin.

Daniela Mansbach and Alisa Von Hagel are professors of political science at University of Wisconsin-Superior, where their research focuses on reproductive health policy. The above column is in partnership with the Scholars Strategy Network.

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