How Wisconsin’s pre-Civil War abortion ban remained untouched during decades of political battle


On this Wisconsin Public Radio sequence, “How We Bought Right here: Abortion in Wisconsin since 1849,” WPR reporters discover how the state’s 1849 abortion ban got here to be and the way Wisconsinites have lived with and with out it since.

Final summer season, when the U.S. Supreme Courtroom overturned Roe vs. Wade, the legality of abortion was despatched again to states — instantly reviving Wisconsin’s pre-Civil Battle abortion ban. 

Few if any states reverted to legal guidelines as outdated as Wisconsin’s. Over the almost 50 years the ban was unenforceable, why had lawmakers by no means revoked it?

In some methods, the reply is straightforward: There was by no means the political will. And within the years instantly following the 1973 Roe v. Wade determination, the political traces when it got here to abortion had been blurred. It will take almost a decade for the key events in Wisconsin, and the nation, to start to undertake unified stances on abortion.

And at the same time as these stances coalesced, Democrats by no means amassed the legislative majorities they would wish in Wisconsin to revoke the ban.

The primary important post-Roe abortion laws in Wisconsin was a bipartisan invoice to limit the process.

Rep. Joanne Duren of Cazenovia was a Democrat, a religious Catholic and a passionate abortion opponent. She shepherded the 1978 proposal, which might forestall folks from utilizing Medicaid to pay for abortions, by way of months of legislative wrangling.

“This can transfer the state from an financial coverage of killing human life to a coverage which favors child-bearing and childbirth,” Duren instructed colleagues throughout one of many prolonged debates on the invoice.

Democrats held two-thirds supermajorities in each the Meeting and the Senate — however they had been deeply divided on this challenge. Nonetheless, Duren was optimistic the proposal would go. 

Non secular organizations and church leaders supported the plan, calling and writing lawmakers and displaying as much as testify at hearings. A large majority of lawmakers, it appeared, was able to pay attention.

Abortion rights activists hoping to cease the invoice descended on Madison, shouting at lawmakers within the Meeting and Senate. They had been ejected from the chambers as some threw pipe cleaners formed like coathangers from the galleries, a reference to a crude instrument generally used for harmful, self-induced abortions. 

“You are killing girls,” a protester shouted, in keeping with newspaper protection of the time.

Down on the ground, feelings amongst lawmakers additionally ran sizzling. One urged authorities funded abortions would empower promiscuous girls.

The rhetoric rankled Michele Radosevich, then a freshman Democratic senator from North Hudson. She opposed the invoice, which she described as “merciless” as a result of it focused poor girls.

“‘Gents, compassion, please,” Radosevich stated on the time. “Whenever you face your God, I’m wondering what you’ll inform him.”

The talk lasted days. There have been prolonged hearings and dozens of amendments. The invoice pinged forwards and backwards between homes earlier than it was lastly authorised by the Legislature on March 8, 1978. 

In spite of everything that, Gov. Martin Schreiber, additionally a Democrat, vetoed the invoice the identical night time.

“I do know for positive {that a} pregnant girl is a human being — an individual,” he stated when explaining his veto. “I, in my very own thoughts, have no idea when a fetus turns into a human being — an individual.”

The infighting amongst Democrats didn’t finish that night time. They organized an try to override Schreiber’s veto. And so they got here inside two votes of succeeding. 

Democrats would have restricted abortion additional — if it weren’t for pro-choice Republicans

At this second in time, the events had been break up on abortion all through the nation, stated Mary Ziegler, a number one professional on the historical past of abortion within the post-Roe v. Wade period.

“Within the ’70s, the events did not have clear identities but completely when it got here to abortion,” she stated. “The concept the Republican Get together was the social gathering of life, as Ronald Reagan put it, or the anti-abortion social gathering, and the Democrats had been supportive of authorized abortion would not actually coalesce till the early ’80s.”

That divide performed out within the 1978 debate on abortion. Rep. Sheehan Donoghue, a Republican, was instrumental in defeating the invoice, not solely voting to uphold Schreiber’s veto but additionally delivering an impassioned speech that no less than one lawmaker credited with altering his thoughts.

“Girls and gents,” Donoghue instructed her colleagues, “What you do right here right now, you’ll have to dwell with the remainder of your lives.”

Immediately, Donoghue is retired, residing in northern Wisconsin. She nonetheless remembers the talk and her causes for opposing the invoice.

This laws, in my view, did harm to the equality of ladies in management over their very own our bodies,” she stated. 

She stated she was significantly involved the invoice — whereas it included exceptions for rape, incest and the lifetime of the mom — didn’t account for pregnancies that would hurt the well being of the mom. 

“I discovered an actual inconsistency there,” she remembered. “And I believed it was merciless in the direction of girls who occurred to be on welfare, who had some drawback, some bodily drawback, (if the being pregnant) would incapacitate them however not kill them.”

The veto override failed by two votes, that means Donoghue and different Republicans who opposed the invoice had been crucial to its defeat.

Nevertheless it wasn’t a clear-cut victory for abortion rights lawmakers. Days after Schreiber’s veto, the Legislature handed a extra restricted invoice that included protections for the well being of a mom. Schreiber — who stated he was “personally opposed” to abortion — signed it into regulation.

As anti-abortion voters manage, the events break up 

The bipartisan coalitions that labored for and in opposition to the invoice could be laborious to think about right now, however Radosevich, the Democratic lawmaker who spoke so fervently on the ground, stated they had been frequent within the late ’70s.

“It was a really completely different time by way of social gathering alignment,” she stated.

Nonetheless, Radosevich, a freshman lawmaker from a aggressive district, knew the facility of the abortion challenge with voters. She had initially deliberate to remain quiet throughout debate and acknowledge that a few of her Democratic colleagues had been “just a bit bit terrified of the voters again residence.” 

Their silence, and the arguments from anti-abortion lawmakers, propelled her to talk up. That landed her on the entrance web page of the Wisconsin State Journal. She stated she thinks that public stance, and the following consideration, contributed to her dropping her subsequent election.

“However, you recognize, there isn’t any approach I might have voted for the invoice and checked out myself within the mirror the subsequent day,” she stated.

On the opposite aspect of the abortion debate from Radosevich was Gary Goyke, then a Democratic state senator from Oshkosh. He voted in favor of the invoice limiting Medicaid funds, telling WPR he considered it, on the time, as the federal government eradicating itself from the abortion determination.

However Goyke described it as a turning level for him, personally. He stated he started to maneuver extra towards embracing abortion rights, together with in his unsuccessful bid for Congress only a yr later.

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That non-public evolution wasn’t with out consequence. Goyke, a Catholic, remembers being confronted at church.

“A girl would come sit proper within the entrance row. And at each service that I used to be at — each Mass I used to be at — she would get up and say, ‘Allow us to pray that Sen. Goyke learns to respect life,'” he remembered. “After which the parish would say, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ And I’m sitting proper in entrance.”

It was round this time when politically lively anti-abortion voters had been changing into a power within the Republican Get together. Nevertheless it did not occur in a single day.

When Barbara Lorman was first elected as a Republican state senator in 1980, she overtly supported abortion entry.

“I believe I’ve at all times been pro-choice,” Lorman instructed WPR. “And it is most likely additionally what led me to be a Republican.”

Lorman stated she at all times considered her place on abortion as in step with conventional Republican values, like minimizing authorities management over peoples’ lives.  On the time, she says none of her Senate colleagues objected.

“You understand, virtually anyone might slot in both social gathering, frankly,” Lorman stated.

However by 1994, it was a distinct story. After the 1990 Census, Republicans redrew her district, making it much more conservative — a secure seat for the GOP.

She drew a major problem from Scott Fitzgerald — whom she describes as a “darling of the correct wing” — and says anti-abortion activists threw their weight behind him instantly.

“These are very devoted, conscientious voters. And like in a single day, yard indicators went up and down the freeway,” she stated. “And I noticed that and I believed, ‘Uh oh, that is gonna be an issue.'”

Fitzgerald gained and went on to serve within the Senate for many years. He’d later develop into the Senate’s Majority Chief and now represents the realm in Congress.

The win was greater than symbolic. In 1997, Fitzgerald was the lead sponsor of a regulation that banned “partial delivery abortion” in Wisconsin, one in every of a number of incremental abortion restrictions championed by the anti-abortion motion within the many years since Roe.

Democrats bear their very own shift, however slowly  

Democrats had been present process their very own shift towards abortion rights politics. Within the 1990 race for lawyer common, for instance, the Republican incumbent signed on to a authorized transient that supported overturning Roe v. Wade. His Democratic challenger, Jim Doyle, used it to marketing campaign in opposition to him.

“That was the primary challenge,” Doyle stated. “That is how I bought elected. So it actually was … at all times an important challenge to me.”

Doyle later turned governor and in 2009, Democrats gained majorities within the Senate and Meeting. The social gathering as soon as once more had full management over state authorities for the primary time in many years.

Among the many Democrats swept into workplace was Kelda Roys, a Madison state consultant who, at 29, was the youngest member of the Legislature. Roys gained a Democratic major for her seat, partly, by touting her work as a lobbyist for NARAL Professional-Alternative, an abortion rights group.

“I got here in simply filled with power and optimism,” Roys stated. “Like, ‘Let’s do all of the issues.'”

One among her most formidable objectives: To overturn the dormant pre-Civil Battle abortion ban she knew was nonetheless on the books.

There have been two issues, as Roys remembers. She stated some abortion rights Democrats took Roe v. Wade with no consideration as settled regulation. And whereas Democrats held a slim total majority, when it got here to the difficulty of abortion, they did not actually have one in any respect. A handful of Democrats had been nonetheless staunchly anti-abortion.

“It appeared like one thing that was symbolic,” she stated of taking up the dormant regulation. “And so there simply wasn’t essentially the massive urge for food to do it. And we did not have the votes in that individual session, as a result of we had all these anti-choice of us in our caucus.”

Bob Ziegelbauer was one of many Legislature’s remaining anti-abortion Democrats. Now the Manitowoc County Government, he says his stance on the difficulty was clear to everybody within the Democratic caucus. He does not bear in mind ever being approached about working to carry the abortion ban.

“They would not even consider asking me that, as a result of it was so clear,” he stated. “It did not come up, as a result of they knew me and I knew them.”

The cordial relationship got here to an finish throughout a debate on the 2009 state finances. Ziegelbauer supported a Republican modification to limit abortion, infuriating Democratic management. In response, they stripped him of a committee chairmanship. Later, Ziegelbauer left the social gathering.

That was the one time I crossed that line. And that line is fairly shiny,” Ziegelbauer stated. “They do not need you doing that.

The 2009 session of the Legislature was outlined by a tough state finances and debates on points starting from payday loans to world warming to uncooked milk. Discussions of Wisconsin’s pre-Civil Battle abortion ban by no means surfaced publicly.

The ironic twist to Democrats’ new battle 

The Democratic majority of 2009 was short-lived. In 2010, a Republican wave election gave the GOP management of the Legislature and introduced Scott Walker into the governor’s workplace. 

That Republican coalition was way more keen to make use of its energy to impact abortion regulation. In only a few years, they handed legal guidelines ending state funding for Deliberate Parenthood, requiring sufferers searching for an abortion to view an ultrasound first and banning abortion after 20 weeks.

Anti-abortion victories across the nation culminated in 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Courtroom overturned Roe v. Wade. For the abortion rights Democratic Get together, it was the worst case state of affairs — one thing advocates like Roys had warned might occur.

Strictly politically talking, nevertheless, that second had a galvanizing impact for Wisconsin Democrats. Final fall, Democratic Gov.Tony Evers, who was considered as weak in his bid for reelection, ran laborious on the difficulty of abortion — and gained. 

This spring, Justice Janet Protasiewicz likewise positioned abortion rights entrance and heart in her marketing campaign for state Supreme Courtroom. That proved a profitable technique for her marketing campaign, too. 

When Protasiewicz was sworn in earlier this month, liberals gained a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Courtroom for the primary time in 15 years. That state Supreme Courtroom might have the ultimate say on any challenges to Wisconsin’s abortion legal guidelines. If a pending lawsuit succeeds, the abortion ban could possibly be gone.

Immediately’s Democratic Get together is pushing laborious for this. The state social gathering poured thousands and thousands of {dollars} into Protasiewicz’s marketing campaign, and earlier this yr, each single Democratic member of the Legislature supported a proposal to overturn the state’s abortion ban.

If the ban is overturned, abortion would as soon as once more be authorized in Wisconsin, however the legal guidelines that had been handed within the years after Roe would even be restored.

Meaning many years’ price of abortion restrictions would once more be the regulation of the land — from the Medicaid restrictions handed in 1978, to the 20-week abortion ban signed by Walker in 2015.

With the events now firmly entrenched on this challenge, the battle over abortion in post-Roe Wisconsin would go on.

For extra from “How We Bought Right here: Abortion in Wisconsin since 1849,” go to