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Wisconsin Republicans Propose Referendum to Restrict Abortion Rights

Abortion is currently legal up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy in Wisconsin — the proposal could shorten that to 12 weeks.

Interior photograph of the architecture of the chamber of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

Republican lawmakers in the Wisconsin state legislature are considering proposing an abortion referendum that they claim would give voters the ability to determine their own rights — but in reality, the amendment would place further restrictions on abortion if passed, and doesn’t provide voters the option to express support for expanding abortion rights.

Although the Wisconsin constitution doesn’t allow for resident-driven ballot initiatives, binding referenda can still be offered to voters if the state legislature passes a measure and the governor agrees to it (a process that is rarely used, as these entities can merely pass a law in this manner anyway).

Currently, abortion is legal in the Badger State up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. That standard existed prior to the federal Supreme Court overturning abortion rights protections in the summer of 2022; after those protections were overturned, many states, including Wisconsin, reverted to old laws restricting abortion that were still on the books.

In Wisconsin’s case, an 1849 statute was reinstated that bans all abortions except in circumstances in which a person’s life is potentially endangered by their pregnancy. However, that law was deemed unenforceable by a state judge earlier this month, who ruled that the 20-week standard would be put back in place as a result.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) opposes abortion rights. Recently, he suggested that a referendum on the issue, billed as a compromise proposal, should be offered to voters, describing it as “the only way for us to put this issue to rest.”

“It has the idea of saying we’re letting the people decide,” Vos told The Associated Press.

Vos elaborated on the plan in comments to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, saying that voters would decide on a change to state law that would limit access to abortion services at around 12-14 weeks — in other words, a measure that would be more restrictive than the current standard.

“I’d like to put something on the ballot in April that allows the people of Wisconsin to be the ones who get the final say on making a decision on abortion,” Vos told the publication.

Vos’s proposal to allow voters to decide on the issue is disingenuous, as such a plan wouldn’t allow voters to reaffirm support for abortions up to 20 weeks or back a proposal that goes beyond the current standard.

In a video message he shared to social media, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has expressed support for abortion rights, said he would oppose Vos’s proposal.

“We’ve had two statewide elections that were referenda on Wisconsin Republicans’ attacks on reproductive healthcare,” Evers said in his statement, referring to his own reelection in 2022 and a state Supreme Court race earlier this year in which abortion played a prominent role. “And guess what? The people who believe Wisconsinites should be able to make their own reproductive health care decisions won.”

Evers called out the proposal for what it was — an attempt to restrict abortion rights shortly after they had been affirmed by a state judge.

“Wisconsinites had 50 years of rights stripped away from them by the U.S. Supreme Court and then spent over a year waiting for those rights to be restored,” Evers said. “Now, weeks after Wisconsinites finally regained that reproductive freedom, Republicans plan to launch a new effort to take some of that freedom away.”

Evers promised to veto any bill that would make “reproductive health care any less accessible for Wisconsinites than it is right now,” including the referendum proposal.

Although polling on a specific week threshold isn’t widely available in Wisconsin, surveys have repeatedly shown that most people in the state support abortion rights. A Marquette Law School poll from this summer, for example, found that 66 percent of Wisconsinites want abortion to be legal in all or most cases, while just 31 percent say it should be illegal in all or most circumstances. That same poll found that 64 percent opposed the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade.

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