How do you know Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is in serious re-election trouble? He just tried to declare himself pro-choice.
Of course, he didn’t use those words specifically. What the Republican governor did do, however, is attempt to repaint himself as someone who is not an extremist when it comes to abortion and birth control, despite a decade in politics that shows otherwise.
It is impossible to deny Walker has an extensive political career promoted on blocking the right to abortion and birth control access. Walker’s legacy on women has been clear: He proposed cuts to Badgercare, the health care insurance program for low-income Wisconsinites; defunding Well Women programs, which provide free preventative health care screenings to women; limiting birth control access to teens; signing anti-abortion legislation that was so restrictive that it ended all medication abortion in the state (before a court overturned it) and later attempted to closed nearly every abortion clinic. He has been a one-man war on women. Signing bills on holidays to hide his actions doesn’t change that.
Now, in the waning days of his re-election campaign, all of these moves are coming back to haunt him. Walker and his Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, continue to be tied in the polls, and, when it comes to women voters, Burke is leading him by a whopping 14 points.
A recent ad put out by EMILY’s List, a political group that supports pro-choice women running for office, hits Walker even harder on his hardline anti-abortion stance, making any headway he could gain with women even less likely to occur.
“I don’t like anybody getting between me and my patients. So I was outraged when I found out Scott Walker quietly signed a law, trying to restrict doctors from performing abortions,” says Meg, a Nurse Practitioner, in the ad.
“Scott Walker wants to make all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. Look, this is one of the toughest decisions a woman has to make,” she continued. “It’s not up to politicians like Scott Walker. Scott Walker needs to get out of my patients’ private lives, out of my examining room, and just leave women alone.”
That ad obviously hit a sore spot for the Governor, and he retorted with an television spot of his own, claiming his real interest is in patient doctor relationships and that abortion is a private medical decision.
“Hi, I’m Scott Walker. I’m pro-life,” he says, in his own rebuttal television ad. “But there’s no doubt in my mind the decision of whether or not to end a pregnancy is an agonizing one. That’s why I support legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options. The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor. Now, reasonable people can disagree on this issue. Our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsin citizens.”
Leaving a final abortion decision “to a woman and her doctor” is meant to resonate with those who are used to discussing the issue as one that is best left to a woman and her provider. In fact, it is so associated with the pro-choice movement that anti-abortion activists include it on their list of “talking points” to battle with pro-life messages. “If they say, ‘Abortion is a private decision between a woman and her doctor,’ you say, ‘If a woman privately hires a doctor to kill her born child, should we interfere?” the talking points read.
Is Walker having a conveniently timed conversion moment and softening his stance when it comes to reproductive rights, or is he just doing a last minute campaign scramble?
Abortion rights supporters in the state say it is the later. “Closing health centers that provide women with preventive health care … puts women’s health at unnecessary risk,” Doug Laube, a past president of American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in a press conference. “These regulations do not to enhance the safety of patients.”
“He thinks he’s in a better position than women and families to make their personal, private decisions,” Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), the former Public Policy Director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, told WKOW.com. “And now he’s trying to obfuscate his position, because he knows it’s so unpopular.”
With just a few weeks to go before Election Day, it could be a tough sell for Walker to completely remake his image in order to win over women voters. However, he won’t be the only candidate in a tight race doing so. Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner (R) is attempting to unseat Democratic Senator Mark Udall, and has not only tried to massively distance himself from the “personhood” movement (a group of extremist anti-abortion activists that believe life starts at the point an egg is fertilized and that abortion and most hormonal birth control may be murder), but has even tried to present himself as pro-woman’s reproductive rights by pushing for over the counter birth control in stores and pharmacies, despite originally supporting policies that could make it illegal.
Walker, too, has been on a personal crusade against reproductive autonomy since he stepped into office, and yes, that means birth control, too. In the most recent example he attempted to use the Hobby Lobby decision to ban birth control coverage in Wisconsin’s own insurance plans, which is mandatory under the state’s contraceptive equity law. Pile that on top of the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, quest that has shut down a number of clinics across the state that did not offer any abortion services, and it’s clear that contraception is just as big of a target to him as abortion is.
“Perhaps Walker doesn’t want women getting a college education, or being in the workforce or in the Legislature,” Rep. Taylor wrote in July. “Maybe he doesn’t care about healthy families and babies. Or maybe he is willing to play politics with women’s health by interfering with critical medical decisions that impact every other area of a woman’s life. Any of these possibilities should terrify every woman in Wisconsin.”
Women may be terrified, but anti-abortion groups in the state couldn’t be more pleased. Walker has long been their standard bearer, from his early days as a state legislature to his current position in the governor’s mansion. He was endorsed not just by Wisconsin Right to Life, considered the more mainstream of the anti-abortion organizations in the state, but also by Pro-Life Wisconsin, who is not just against abortion under all circumstances, but advocates against contraception as well. In 2010 the group called him “100% pro-life” which means “to know that a human life begins at fertilization and that there may never be a legal exception to an innocent child’s inalienable right to life.”
Pro-Life Wisconsin, meanwhile, sees no issue with Walker’s change of language, even if it implies that the governor is no longer a “100% pro-life candidate.” “We are a non-partisan organization,” they stated via twitter. “Our message always comes first, not a specific politician or political party.”
Walker has 22 days to complete a makeover, and his re-election campaign — and 2016 — is hanging in the balance. Unfortunately for him, the entire success of his endeavor rests on the assumption that reproductive rights advocates, women, families and allies will forget literally every bill he signed in the last four year that whittled away a person’s right to terminate or prevent a pregnancy.
That’s a pretty massive undertaking, and one statement that a “decision should be between a woman and her doctor,” isn’t likely to accomplish it.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, Ms. Magazine, In These Times, Truth Out, AlterNet, RH Reality Check and other publications.