Madisonians must re-commit to defending abortion
Let's declare unapologetically that abortion is good, and fight anti-abortion groups on our own turf. (Illustration by Rachal Duggan.)
In February, Governor Tony Evers announced that he will propose putting $28 million in the next state budget for an excellent plan he’s calling “Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies.” The plan includes a number of provisions for women’s health and aims to reduce racial disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes. For supporters of reproductive and sexual health care, it’s the first time in eight years that good news has come out of the Governor’s office. It was thrilling to read.
But the excitement didn’t last long. In the same Capital Times article that details the plan, reporter Jessie Opoien notes that parts of it will likely face opposition from anti-abortion groups because Evers intends to restore Planned Parenthood’s eligibility to receive state and federal funding for healthcare services it provides. For abortion opponents, any funding for healthcare providers that also perform abortions is a subsidy for abortion, full stop. This is why Scott Walker took multiple steps to eliminate Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for this funding in the first place. The “domestic gag rule” the Trump administration is currently working to impose follows the same logic. The Republican majority in the Wisconsin state legislature isn't likely to make this restoration of Planned Parenthood’s funding easy, either.
Right! We live in a state with a hostile and effective anti-abortion movement. This is why we can’t have nice things.
It should be stated clearly that Governor Evers’ Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies plan has nothing to do with abortion. But we should say even more clearly that it shouldn’t matter if the plan includes provisions for abortion or not, because abortion is a normal, legal, and safe part of healthcare that should be funded by the state. In fact, if Governor Evers is serious about healthy moms and babies, he should know that that many mothers credit their ability to be good parents to the fact that they were able to have an abortion when they needed to. Let’s fund abortion coverage through Badgercare while we’re at it.
However, if Evers’ “re-funding” of Planned Parenthood does come under attack, don’t expect mainstream women’s and reproductive rights organizations to lead with the argument that abortion is, in fact, good. For years, their primary strategy to defend abortion has been to avoid talking about abortion when it’s possible, and to fall back on euphemisms like “the right to choose” and “personal medical decisions” when it’s not.. For example, when Republicans introduced a bill that would have banned University of Wisconsin physicians from working with Planned Parenthood to train medical school residents and perform abortions, Planned Parenthood discouraged abortion rights supporters who wanted to fight the bill from talking about Planned Parenthood or abortion. Instead, opposition focused on how UW’s OB/GYN program might lose its federal accreditation if Republicans went through with the measure.
Instead of reclaiming ideological ground by defending abortion outright, abortion rights supporters have largely adopted a strategy that accepts that abortion is taboo and that talking about it too much might prevent pro-choice candidates from getting elected or rile up the anti-abortion base. Of course, this leads to the situation we find ourselves in now, with a governor whose efforts to expand healthcare will be opposed by an anti-abortion movement that has flourished in our silence, before he even mentions restoring abortion access.
As an activist in Madison, I find this self-defeating strategy especially baffling. I understand why an embattled healthcare organization like Planned Parenthood can’t be the vanguard of a radical fight to defend abortion. But I don’t understand why so much of Madison seems to adopt the same approach, largely unmoved by anti-abortion advances around our own city.
In the past few years in Madison, I've been invited to more events to support Planned Parenthood than I can count, from concerts to 5ks to cookie box sales. Madison-based Women's Medical Fund, which provides funding for low-income Wisconsinites seeking abortion services, had its first bowl-a-thon fundraiser in 2017, after 45 years of keeping a low profile. The event raised more than $35,000. If every Madisonian who owns an “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” button, sticker, or T-shirt went to the Capitol, I bet we’d fill the rotunda and spill out onto the steps to State Street. Madison is almost certainly the most pro-choice city in the state, maybe one of the most pro-choice cities in the whole country.
Moreover, we are experts here at channeling outrage over misogyny. Our response to local, sexist asshattery in the past decade has made national headlines more than once—just ask Gil Altschul. Madison hosted the largest per-capita women’s march outside of Washington D.C. in 2017. It is not uncommon for activists from local high schools, the UW, and workplaces all around Madison to converge on the Capitol in the hundreds and thousands. So by all accounts we should be leading the defense of abortion rights. Madison should be a no-man's land for anti-abortion sentiment.
Instead, on the morning of Governor Evers’ Inaugural Kids’ Gala at the Madison Children's Museum in the heart of downtown Madison, anti-abortion activists felt bold enough to stand on the corner outside the museum for hours, flashing gruesome anti-abortion signs at every kid who walked by.
There are crisis pregnancy centers throughout the city, designed to attract people looking for abortion services, where they will instead find pseudo-scientific and religious counseling from anti-abortion zealots. Local businesses support these centers. The owner of Princeton Club gave half a million dollars to help a crisis pregnancy center expand in 2005, and the Metcalfe’s Market grocery company participated in a “community baby shower” to benefit a crisis pregnancy center this past January. (Metcalfe's, of course, has a colorful history with the anti-abortion movement.)
Anti-abortion group Vigil for Life operates freely in Madison, organizing a year-round presence of ghouls at our one and only abortion clinic. Armed with signs and rosaries, they stand on the sidewalk in front of the clinic praying, violating patients’ privacy, and making normal people's skin crawl. Sometimes whole families come out to gawk and pray together. They are almost never confronted for their despicable behavior and they are not at all ashamed.
Anti-abortion legislation, the harassment of clinics, and the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers—along with the timid strategy of abortion rights supporters—all contribute to the stigma surrounding abortion and the absolutely dismal state of abortion access in Wisconsin. There are only three clinics in Wisconsin that provide surgical abortion services, and they are all in Madison or Milwaukee. A clinic in Sheboygan recently added medication abortion services, but only up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. Look at a map and you can see that many people in Wisconsin face a geographic barrier to having an abortion. This is complicated by a number of other hurdles, like a 24-hour waiting period that requires patients to make two trips to the clinic, the cost of an abortion ($500 to $2,500) which is not covered by Badgercare or public insurance plans for state workers, and the fact that only one abortion clinic in the entire state is open on Saturdays.
Madison has the potential and the imperative to lead the way in building an unapologetic defense of abortion. We could start by flexing on the creeps in our own community, from Vigil for Life, to crisis pregnancy centers, to the churches and businesses that give them material support, which deserve to be picketed and peacefully disrupted. Our response to anti-abortion groups that try to mobilize at the Capitol—like the March for Life in January—should be similar. People who do anti-abortion work in Madison should feel discouraged at every turn. They don’t have the home-team advantage here.
Just as importantly, we should lead the state in calling for the expansion of abortion access.
A Republican-controlled state legislature shouldn’t stop us from demanding an end to the ban on covering abortion through Badgercare, or for the repeal of the 24-hour waiting period that makes accessing abortion so difficult. We should begin making the case for abortion, taking up our own share of the ideological front. If we start now, we can begin to develop a movement that will empower pro-choice politicians in Wisconsin when the legislative terrain starts to change.
Abortion is a good thing. Abortion can change people’s lives. Abortion allows people to be better parents. We need a movement that says this—often—and creates space for other communities around the state to say it, too.
There’s nothing to be gained by putting off this fight. But there’s a host of important victories waiting for a movement with the guts to call for them. In Madison, that movement is ours to grow.