President Trump has selected conservative judicial activist Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court. The fight over Kavanaugh’s confirmation will play out in the U.S. Senate, where critics hope to assemble a coalition of Democrats and pro-choice Republicans in order to derail a selection that threatens to undo the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
If Trump’s pick is confirmed, and if the new court majority abandons judicial recognition of the right of women to make decisions regarding their own bodies, reproductive rights activists worry that a patchwork quilt of differing state laws will suddenly apply.
In that circumstance, Wisconsin could end up with one of the most punitive of these laws.
As a former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, Kelda Helen Roys is well aware of what that would mean for women in Wisconsin — and for health care providers.
“If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will immediately become illegal in Wisconsin. It will be illegal even in cases of rape, incest, and grave danger to a woman’s health,” explained Roys, as speculation about the nomination fight began. “Victims of sexual assault and domestic violence will be forced to bear the children of their abusers. The only exception is if the woman will otherwise die — something that is very rare, and often impossible to foresee until it’s too late. Even in those cases, many doctors will be unwilling to risk prison time. This cruel, dangerous, archaic abortion ban must be repealed immediately.
A gubernatorial candidate who knows these issues, and who is focused on addressing them, has much to contribute to the debate in these unsettled times. But it is the full response of Roys to the challenges that might arise if the court overturns Roe that distinguishes her. Yes, of course, she wants to repeal the old abortion ban. But, as a former legislator, she recognizes that could take time and involve significant political wrangling with anti-choice Republicans.
With this in mind, Roys says, “As governor, I will seek immediate repeal of the Criminal Abortion Ban, and I will pardon any provider charged under the ban.”
That’s a bold promise, and an important one — not merely with regard to this particular issue but with regard to the style Roys would adopt as governor.
Roys is not the only bold progressive contender in the crowded field of Democrats who are seeking the party’s nomination in the Aug. 14 primary. But, with her response to the threat to reproductive rights, she is giving a sense of how a new governor might govern by using all the powers of the office — just as former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Matt Flynn did when he announced that he would pardon Wisconsinites who have low-level marijuana convictions.
This determined approach does not represent a radical deviation from the historic understanding of Wisconsin’s governorship. Rather, it represents a return to the approach of the state’s finest governors: Robert M. La Follette, John Blaine, Phil La Follette and Gaylord Nelson. These leaders staked out very strong, often very controversial positions and acted upon them in ways that transformed Wisconsin — and the nation — for the better.
Nelson used his 1959 inaugural address to, as he put it, “speak loudly for the necessity of bold action.”
As he assumed office as the first progressive governor to be elected in 16 years, and the first Democratic governor to be elected in 26 years, Nelson recalled “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s wise counsel regarding the necessity of activist citizens and activist government:
“We have long rested comfortably in this country upon the assumption that because our form of government was democratic, it was therefore automatically producing democratic results. Now, there is nothing mysteriously potent about the forms and names of democratic institutions that should make them self-operative. Tyranny and oppression are just as possible under democratic forms as under any other. We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated."
Nelson said: “The late Senator La Follette's words come as a stern reminder that political leadership in our system must accept the responsibility to lead. It must answer swiftly and decisively any form of tyranny and oppression.”
Nelson signaled in his inaugural address that he would seek to “break the chains that will shackle us to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.’”
When Kelda Roys says that she would use the power of the governorship to prevent an old law from shackling the women of today with the dogmas of the past, she is signaling that she would govern in the proud tradition of Wisconsin’s progressive governors.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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