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170-Year-Old Wisconsin Abortion Ban Still On The Books

As New Abortion Restrictions Are Proposed, Opponents Highlight Law That Could Go Into Effect If Federal Protections Are Overturned

Doctor's office
John K. Wilson/WPR

Several states have old laws which criminalize abortion. Wisconsin is one of them.

A law on Wisconsin’s books since 1849 hasn’t been enforced because of the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which established the legal right to the procedure. But groups supporting access to abortion are concerned conservative-leaning justices on the state and U.S. supreme courts could strike down the 1973 decision.

Over the years, there have been unsuccessful attempts to overturn Wisconsin’s 170-year-old law that makes it a felony for doctors to provide an abortion and contains no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.

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Women’s health groups are trying to bring attention to what they call an “archaic” law with a public awareness campaign. The effort by the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health and National Institute for Reproductive Health started Monday with billboards in Madison and social media.

“Wisconsin is not recognized as having some of the harshest abortion laws, but we’re right up there with Texas and some others who do have that reputation,” said Sara Finger, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Reproductive Health.

Five abortion bills have been introduced by Republican state lawmakers this year. Gov. Tony Evers has already promised to veto one proposal that could send doctors to prison for life if they fail to give medical care to babies born alive after a failed abortion attempt. How often this occurs is disputed by doctors who perform abortions and politicians seeking to ban the procedure.

“It just doesn’t happen,” said Dr. Doug Laube, who used to be the chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While in Green Bay for a campaign stop over the weekend, President Donald Trump described the procedure as a baby being born and the mother and doctor then determining whether to execute the child.

“The statement that President Trump made is grotesque, ignorant and irresponsible and is not backed up by any clinical or scientific information,” said Laube, who performs abortions and is a former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Legislation restricting abortion around the country are pitting Republican lawmakers against Democratic governors. Wisconsin is considered a swing state. The bills were introduced as lawmakers consider the state budget.

“With states around the country actively working to erode protections for children and the unborn, this is absolutely the right time to be promoting legislation of this type,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, in an email. “If expanded abortion laws can take hold in places like New York or Virginia, there’s no doubt that Gov. Evers and his allies won’t try to do the same here in Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin currently bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires a 24-hour waiting period. An October 2018 poll from Marquette University Law School found 56 percent of those surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.