One thousand two hundred and fifteen miles separate the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison from the Texas state Capitol in Austin. But if Rebecca Kleefisch is elected governor next year, that distance won’t be enough to keep bad ideas from Texas out of Wisconsin.
Kleefisch has made this abundantly clear with her recent embrace of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s extreme strategies for denying women access to the safe and legal abortions that the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed with its historic ruling in the 1973 Roe v Wade case.
The former lieutenant governor — who was booted from office along with former Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 — has emerged as the front runner for the 2022 Republican nomination to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
But Kleefisch doesn’t sound like she is running for governor of Wisconsin.
She sound like she wants to replace Abbott as the nation’s top advocate for the Lone Star state’s distinctive brand of disdain for a woman’s right to choose. Kleefisch made that clear during a Sept. 9 interview with a conservative talk radio host in which she embraced the falsehoods that have underpinned an assault on reproductive rights so extreme that it effectively bans abortion at around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
Kleefisch, a former television news anchor, knows that the Texas law is grounded in a deliberate strategy of misinforming people. But she has chosen to follow Abbott’s lead in order to secure her position within a Texas Republican Party that has declared war on the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies.
That’s a shameful decision on Kleefisch’s part, and it ought to cause Wisconsin Republicans to question whether she is fit to be their nominee — as Wisconsin is a pro-choice state that will ultimately reject Texas-style extremism.
Even by Texas standards, Abbott is a charlatan. He rejects science in order to get ahead politically in a state where the Republican Party has charted a race to the bottom so fierce that it sent Ted Cruz, a buffoonish caricature of a legislator, to the U.S. Senate. Fearing a primary challenge from someone even more outlandish, Abbott has chosen to go off the deep end.
In May, the governor signed an anti-abortion measure with restrictions so narrowly drawn, and so arbitrary, that experts say it is likely to prevent most women in the state from being able to end unwanted pregnancies, even in cases where those pregnancies result from rape or incest.
While much attention has been focused on a provision that allows legal vigilantes to go after anyone who assists a woman in seeking an abortion — including doctors and nurses — it is the underlying premise of the law that is most unsettling.
And it is that underlying premise that Kleefisch has publicly embraced.
The Texas law seeks to block access to abortion rights as they were outlined in the Roe decision by declaring that, “A physician may not knowingly perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman if the physician detected a fetal heartbeat for the unborn child." Under its provisions, a "fetal heartbeat" is defined as "cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.” The law imagines that this is an indication of "the likelihood of her unborn child surviving to full-term birth."
But as a National Public Radio analysis determined after a closely divided U.S. Supreme Court failed to prevent its implementation earlier this month, the Texas law is based on a false premise. Physicians who specialize in reproductive health told NPR that “the medical-sounding term ‘fetal heartbeat’ is being used in this law — and others like it — in a misleading way.”
That’s not a political assessment.
What the yahoos in Texas refer to as a “fetal heartbeat” isn’t that at all, explains Dr. Jennifer Kerns, an OB-GYN who is also an associate professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. "What we're really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity," she says. "In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart."
Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN who works with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told NPR: "When I use a stethoscope to listen to an (adult) patient's heart, the sound that I'm hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves. … At six weeks of gestation, those valves don't exist. The flickering that we're seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you 'hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine."
Those are the facts. Yet even after they were widely reported, there was Kleefisch announcing on right-wing talker Mark Belling’s Milwaukee radio show that, “I will sign a heartbeat bill.”
What this cynical career politician was really saying was that she thinks that the voters of Wisconsin are every bit as scientifically ignorant — or anti-science — as the voters of Texas.
We’re betting that Kleefisch is wrong.
A review of public opinion data issued last year by the Pew Research Center determined that 50% of Texans believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 45% disagree. In Wisconsin, according to Pew, the numbers are reversed. A clear majority, 53%, favor reproductive rights, while only a minority, 45%, would take them away from women.
If the right of Wisconsin women to access safe and legal medical procedures is a central issue in the 2022 campaign — as now seems likely — Evers and the Democrats are going to have the upper hand. And Kleefisch and her Republican allies will learn the hard way that they are running on the wrong platform in the wrong state.
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