Wisconsin Assembly Republicans propose ballot referendum on abortion law

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he wants voters to determine abortion laws in the state.

Vos and other Assembly Republicans say they want to hold a referendum on a measure that would ban abortion after 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy, nearly six to eight weeks earlier than the current law’s ban at 20 weeks.

“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 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “So it’s not the court. It’s not the Legislature. It’s not the governor. It’s going to be the people who get the final choice.”

Despite his openly anti-abortion positions and his interest in restricting access — Vos has suggested that he would support requiring a police report before a person can obtain abortion care in cases of rape or incest — Wisconsin Family Action and other anti-abortion groups have publicly opposed Vos’ plan.

According to the Associated Press, Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said the group is hoping for a positive result from a notice of appeal filed on Dec. 19 by Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanksi of a lower court ruling in a suit challenging a law that had been used to restrict abortion in Wisconsin. 

On Dec. 6, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Diane Schlipper ruled in Kaul v. Urmanski that a state law dating back to 1849 that had been used to ban abortion “does not apply to consensual abortions, but to feticide.”

Urmanski is asking the Wisconsin District II Court of Appeals to hear his case and intends for the progressive-led state Supreme Court to take his appeal, according to reporting from Wisconsin Public Radio. “I believe it would be in the best interests of the State as a whole for this issue to be considered and resolved by our Supreme Court immediately,” Urmanski said. 

Schlipper’s ruling paved the way for abortion care to remain legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, as it was before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in 2022 that reversed the affirmation of a constitutional right to abortion held in Roe v. Wade.

“Time and time again, I have said that politicians do not belong in the doctor’s office with folks who are making decisions about their reproductive health care,” Sen. Melissa Agard told the American Independent by email. “Speaker Vos is in no way qualified to be making decisions about access to abortion care in Wisconsin. In fact, he has served as a roadblock to necessary medical care for his entire tenure in the state legislature.

This is not the first time a Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin has attempted to add a referendum on abortion to the ballot. In April 2023, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson called for a statewide referendum on abortion rights.

According to the Associated Press, Johnson’s ballot question would have been “At what point does society have the responsibility to protect the life of an unborn child?” 

Wisconsin law doesn’t permit voters to put questions on the ballot. The Legislature can put forth amendments to the state Constitution for a vote, but not changes to existing law. Wisconsin is one of 24 states that does not have the option of a citizen-initiated ballot measure

Vos’ proposed measure would require the approval of the Republican-controlled Legislature and would then need to be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Evers said in a statement on Dec. 21 that he would veto any legislation that would limit reproductive health care.

“We’ve had two statewide elections that were referenda on Wisconsin Republicans’ attacks on reproductive healthcare, and guess what—the people who believe Wisconsinites should be able to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions won,” Evers said.

“The bottom line for me is this: Wisconsinites should be able to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions without interference from politicians who don’t know anything about their lives, their family, or their circumstances. And I’ll veto any bill that makes reproductive healthcare any less accessible for Wisconsinites than it is right now,” Evers added.

The American Independent reached out to Vos’ office for comment but as of publication had not received a response.