Just in time for his nascent presidential campaign, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill Monday banning abortion at 20 weeks — without an exception for rape and incest and with only a narrow emergency exception. In doing so, he reasserts his anti-abortion bonafides after a midterm election where he soft-pedaled his position on the issue, irritating a key portion of the Republican base.
"At five months, that's the time when that unborn child can feel pain," Walker said. "When an unborn child can feel pain, we should be protecting that child."
But Walker's assertions are disputed by the medical evidence, which has overwhelmingly found that pain receptions come weeks later in gestation. "This is bad medicine, based on the thoroughly debunked fallacy that a 20-week fetus — which is not viable — can feel pain," wrote 99 physicians, all members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in a letter. They said the law "would block Wisconsin ob-gyns from being able to treat our patients in a medically appropriate and humane manner."
About 1% of abortions take place after the 20-week mark, which also happens to be around the time that many fetal anomalies, some of which are incompatible with life, are detected. Such bans have proliferated in states thanks to a nationwide anti-abortion strategy to undermine the Supreme Court's repeated holding that women have the right to terminate a pregnancy until the fetus is viable, about four to six weeks after the 20 week mark. In most of the states where these bans have become law, supporters of abortion rights have declined to challenge them, reluctant to test the Supreme Court on this slice of the issue.
The exceptions are Idaho and Arizona, two states with 20-week bans that fell when the more liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found them to be unconstitutional. Wisconsin, which is covered by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, previously struck down on a preliminary basis another Walker anti-abortion law requiring hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers. That law threatened to shut down some of the state's abortion providers.
It was that law, as well as a forced-ultrasound law, that Walker alluded to in a now-infamous television commercial during his 2014 re-election fight. Accused of being anti-woman, Walker described the two laws as "legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options," respectively. But, he said, mimicking pro-choice rhetoric, "The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor."
That irked his supporters. Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, told Politico, “I didn’t like the ad. You’re using the other side’s garbage and it’s not helpful."
Seemingly to placate his base, Walker asked for the 20-week ban bill to contain no exceptions for rape and incest, which many opponents of abortion consider unacceptable compromises. He got his wish with unusual speed. Walker also offered assurances on conservative media. On her radio show last week, Laura Ingraham asked Walker about the ad, saying, “You don’t believe the final decision should be between a woman and her doctor? You believe –” Walker cut in, "No."
Kaylie Hanson, a press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, responded, “If it wasn’t clear before, it is now .... Maybe he doesn’t think we’re capable, maybe he doesn’t trust us, or maybe he wants to make the decision for us. Whatever it is, this statement is just another line from Scott Walker that proves what we’ve known all along: he’s wrong for women.”
A similar 20-week ban is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate soon after the August recess ends. The House of Representatives passed a similar ban in May. President Obama has promised to veto the bill if it comes to his desk.