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Legally, Wisconsin Women No Longer Have Bodily Autonomy

Black Lives Matter

Last Friday, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the seminal 1973 case guaranteeing the right to an abortion. Now, thanks to a pre-Civil War law, abortion is illegal and pregnancy itself is unsafe in our state.

Wisconsin’s once and current abortion ban was enacted in 1849. When it became law, only white men could vote. Women weren’t considered full citizens. The US Constitution endorsed slavery.

The 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection and due process, wouldn’t become law for another two decades.

This restriction of women’s bodies from a bygone era has no place here in the 21st century.

Nonetheless, our lawmakers have refused to do anything about it. Last Wednesday, Republicans in the legislature immediately closed a special session to repeal the ban without holding a single hearing.

The safety of all pregnant Wisconsinites is now at risk – whether they are seeking abortion care or not. The ban inevitably puts doctors in the position where they must ignore best medical practices or risk being charged with a felony.

The 19th century law’s sole exception allows a doctor to terminate a pregnancy when she finds it “is necessary … to save the life of the mother.” This vague language makes it difficult for doctors to determine when it is acceptable to terminate a pregnancy to protect a woman’s health. When, precisely, is termination of a pregnancy “necessary” to save the life of the mother?

How close to death must you be for the procedure to be considered lifesaving? If you have a 50% chance of dying, is that sufficient? Seventy-five percent?

The United States already has the worst maternal mortality rate of any industrialized nation – and the racial disparity in maternal mortality is worse than it was during slavery. Here in Wisconsin, the maternal mortality rate is five times higher for Black women than it is for white women. More women and girls are certain to die when doctors are forced to watch them to get sicker and sicker before acting.

A doctor should never be forced to consult a lawyer when faced with a decision that could save a person’s life. Medical decisions should be made by doctors and patients, not politicians.

Wisconsin law also now requires rape victims to carry their rapist’s child to term against their will, with no regard for the health or wellbeing of the victim. And sometimes, the rapists will even be able to exercise parental rights, forcing their victims to remain in contact with them for the rest of their lives.

In Wisconsin, unless the rapist is convicted and the victim goes through additional court proceedings, the rapist retains his parental rights. And like many states, Wisconsin has a poor record of prosecuting sexual assault cases. In Milwaukee County, prosecutors only issued charges in 40% of the cases referred to them last year. This doesn’t include the cases that police refused to refer to prosecutors. This systemic refusal to even attempt to hold rapists accountable makes it even more likely women and girls will be forced to co-parent with their rapists.

And all this in a state and country with no guaranteed maternity leave, no universal healthcare, no universal childcare or pre-k, and foster care systems already in crisis.

Abortion access isn’t only important in the context of rape and life-saving procedures. When women have the ability to decide their reproductive fates, they also have the ability to control their lives. They can escape abusive relationships and marriages. They are able to stay in school, pursue careers, and care for their existing families. (Sixty percent of women who have abortions are mothers already.)

Abortion bans also result in the criminalization of pregnancy itself. Although between 10% and 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, many miscarriages and stillbirths will now result in criminal investigations – and even murder charges. This was happening in the U.S. even while Roe remained on the books. Since 2006, more than 1,000 women have been charged with crimes because of a lost pregnancy. Poor Black and brown women are at particular risk of being sent to prison for losing a pregnancy.

Overturning Wisconsin’s draconian abortion ban isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s also what Wisconsinites want. Nearly 70% of Wisconsin residents think abortion should be legal in most or all cases. That polling has remained steady for over a decade, but our politicians simply don’t care.

The refusal of Republican leaders to even consider the consequences a 173-year-old abortion ban will have on women’s health shows their outright contempt for the women and girls they represent.

When politicians refuse to even consider whether to repeal our state’s abortion ban, they are saying that a 12-year-old rape victim should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term against her will. That is what Wisconsin law now requires.