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Wisconsin GOP eyes referendum on 14-week abortion ban

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly introduced Friday a bill that would put a 14-week abortion ban to a binding, statewide referendum on the April ballot.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Assembly quietly introduced a bill Friday that would call for a binding statewide referendum on whether abortion should be banned after 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The GOP has scheduled a public hearing on the bill for Monday afternoon at the state Capitol. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is almost certain to veto the measure. However, the proposal could still galvanize the conservative base after Democrats parlayed anger over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn its landmark 1972 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion nationwide, into big election wins across the country.

Nowhere was that dynamic more evident than in Wisconsin, where Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the state Supreme Court last year after repeatedly announcing on the campaign trail that she supports abortion rights. Her victory handed liberal justices a 4-3 majority on the court.


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To add to Republicans’ woes, a Dane County judge ruled this past summer that Wisconsin’s 174-year-old ban on abortion only prohibits feticide, or an attempt to kill an unborn child. The ruling emboldened Planned Parenthood, which had ceased providing services in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, to resume operations in September. The case is on appeal, though, and likely will end up before the state Supreme Court.

Monday’s hearing is set for the same day Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Waukesha County as part of a nationwide tour promoting reproductive rights, promising plenty of headlines for both sides on abortion.

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Another Wisconsin law bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill Friday would outlaw abortions after 14 weeks of pregnancy, or about three months.

Forty-three states prohibit abortions after a certain point of viability, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Two states — Georgia and South Carolina — have laws in effect that ban abortion at six weeks, before many women realize they’re pregnant. Nebraska and North Carolina have laws in effect that outlaw abortion at 12 weeks. Arizona and Florida have laws in effect that prohibit abortion at 15 weeks.

The Wisconsin bill comes with a catch, though. The proposal calls for a statewide referendum conducted during April’s election asking voters whether the 14-week prohibition should take effect. If approved, the bill would take effect the day after the results are certified. If the question is rejected, the bill would not take effect.

Wisconsin law does not allow voters to place questions on the ballot. Republican lawmakers have rejected Evers’ calls to create a way for voters to repeal the 1849 abortion ban.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in December that he’d like to let voters decide whether to shrink the window for abortions. He said then that passing a new abortion law would end the uncertainty of waiting for judges to interpret outdated laws.

The GOP introduced the bill into the Legislature’s online database Friday morning without distributing a memo to legislators seeking cosponsors, issuing a news release or calling a news conference, which is customary when legislators want to draw attention to a proposal. Asked for comment Friday, Vos spokesperson Angela Joyce referred a reporter to Vos’ December comments.

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Joyce released a statement on behalf of Rep. Amanda Nedweski, the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, later Friday afternoon. Nedweski said shrinking the window for an abortion could save lives.

Britt Cudaback, a spokesperson for Evers, referred reporters Friday to comments Evers made last month in which he vowed to veto “any bill that makes reproductive health care any less accessible for Wisconsinites than it is right now.”

“Which is what this bill aims to do,” Cudaback said.

The measure may not even get to Evers. The bill would have to pass both the Assembly and the Senate before going to the governor. The Senate’s Republican majority leader, Devin LeMahieu, said last week that it would be difficult to get his caucus to coalesce around an abortion bill that Evers would veto. LeMahieu spokesperson Brian Radday didn’t immediately return a message Friday seeking comment.

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