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US Sen. Ron Johnson again pushes for one-time state abortion referendum

Johnson also raised doubts on the management of abortion drug mifepristone

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks during a Milwaukee Press Club event.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks during a Milwaukee Press Club event on Monday, April 24, 2023. Evan Casey/WPR

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is once again calling for a statewide “one-time, single-issue referendum” on abortion rights.

The call comes after Republican state lawmakers rejected calls from Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats to put an advisory referendum on the ballot last fall asking voters if the state should continue to ban abortions in almost all cases.

“I think we the people ought to decide that,” Johnson said during a Milwaukee Press Club event Monday afternoon.

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Johnson first pushed for the referendum during his reelection campaign last fall. Monday, he again called for it, just weeks after Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz — who has voiced support for abortion rights — handed liberals a majority on the state Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years.

“I have a hard time believing people would allow abortion past about 12 weeks,” Johnson said Monday. “But at the same time I’ll say … again I’m not a woman, and I’m also very mindful of that, but it takes time to realize you’re pregnant, not always, but oftentimes.”

Under Johnson’s plan, voters would have 10 options as to when, and if, abortion should be allowed. Those options would begin with “from the moment of conception” and end with “never — an unborn child has no right to life.” Leading up to the vote, Johnson said there would be an “education campaign,” which would include forums by anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups.

Nationally, polls show the majority of Americans want abortion to be legal. A March Marquette University Law School national poll found 67 percent of respondents opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Last fall, non-binding referendums in Dane County and the city of Racine also showed overwhelming support for overturning the state’s pre-Civil War abortion ban.

Across the country, voters in California, Michigan and Vermont voted to enshrine access to abortion in their state constitutions through ballot measures last fall. Meanwhile, voters in Kentucky rejected a ballot proposal that would have amended the state’s constitution to say it doesn’t protect the right to an abortion.

Abortion access was top of mind for many voters during the spring election, as Protasiewicz beat former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, the candidate favored by Republicans, by an 11-point margin. But that didn’t deter Johnson from again calling for the referendum Monday.

“This question that we have to decide is at what point does society have the responsibility to protect life,” Johnson said.

Johnson was also asked about his stance on the abortion pill mifepristone during the press club event. In response, he said he had doubts the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would avoid “playing politics” with regard to the abortion pill.

He said he believes federal health agencies have been “captured by big Pharma” after the FDA approval of COVID-19 vaccines, a subject Johnson has been called out for after using his position in Congress to advocate for alternative and unproven COVID-19 treatments.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ordered mifepristone to remain broadly available during ongoing legal battles.

The drug is widely used across the United States to end pregnancy in the first 10 weeks of gestation, according to NPR. About half of all abortions nationwide are performed using mifepristone as the first of a two-pill regimen. The drug is also commonly used to help manage miscarriages. It’s been used millions of times, and is a drug the American Medical Association says has a strong safety record.