People who think money is the mother’s milk of politics ought to ponder the astonishing recent success of the state’s anti-abortion lobby.
Despite expenditures that qualify as puny among state interest groups, Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin are seeing major gains under Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP-controlled Legislature. The state is now at the forefront of national efforts to make abortion and even birth control harder to get.
On July 5, Walker signed into law a bill to make women seeking abortions undergo an obstetric ultrasound, whether they want one or not, and requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. A judge has blocked enactment of this latter provision, which would have closed some clinics, a prospect cheered by Wisconsin Right to Life.
The state Assembly has passed bills to bar public employee health plans from covering abortions, exempt religious employers from having to cover contraceptives, and outlaw abortions “sought solely because of the sex of the unborn child.” The Senate is expected to take these up this fall.
Also in the hopper: a revived state constitutional amendment to define “person” in a way that critics say would make contraception illegal, and bills to prohibit the sale and use of fetal tissue and create a “Choose Life” state license plate.
These gains follow those of 2011-12, when Wisconsin ended the mandate that schools teach students about birth control and cut state funding for family planning, prompting the closure of four rural Planned Parenthood centers.
All this has happened without big lobby budgets or major outlays of campaign cash.
In the 2011-12 session, Wisconsin Right to Life reported spending $43,730 on lobbying, less than 339 other state interest groups. Pro-Life Wisconsin spent $63,113.
During the same period, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin parted with $241,309 trying to influence state officials.
On campaign cash, the differences are even starker. Political action committees run by Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin have spent about $150,000 since mid-2008 on state political campaigns.
During this period, Planned Parenthood pumped $1.3 million into the electoral process.
Moreover, the bill requiring ultrasounds and admitting privileges passed despite opposition from titans like the Wisconsin Medical Society and Wisconsin Hospital Association, which together spent $1.8 million on lobbying in 2011-12. (Medical Society lobbyist Mark Grapentine says the law serves no medical necessity and “seems to be meant to make abortions much more difficult to obtain and provide.”)
What, if not money, accounts for the anti-abortion lobby’s success?
“Two words: powerful issue,” says Matt Sande, director of legislation for Pro-Life Wisconsin. “Abortion is killing a human being, and naturally people are passionate about that. So we don’t need a ton of dollars.”
Susan Armacost, legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, cites her group’s network of grassroots support and its diligence in educating the public, backing carefully crafted legislation that smacks of “common sense” and providing accurate information.
“We work very hard, and we think we’re good at what we do,” Armacost says. “We’ve earned the respect of people in this state.”
The other side spins it differently, noting the support that anti-abortion groups get from institutions like the Catholic Church, and arguing that politicians who advance the anti-abortion agenda are disregarding the will of the electorate.
A poll taken last fall found that 60 percent of state respondents thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Just 35 percent of respondents felt it should always or usually be illegal.
“Most of these pieces of legislation are wildly unpopular,” says Stephanie Wilson, spokeswoman with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “Most people think abortion should be safe and legal.”
But right now in Wisconsin, that's not the side that’s winning.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.