With seven months to go before the Nov. 6 presidential election, Democratic partisans started accusing Republicans of waging a war on women. They pointed to a number of factors, including GOP opposition to President Barack Obama's health care reform provision that employers' health insurance policies cover birth control.
Republicans, along with their supporters in the anti-abortion movement and religious right community, scoffed at the notion that women were the victims of an evil offensive: "Time for some woman-to-woman talk," Barbara Lyons, director of Wisconsin Right to Life, wrote in an April 25 column that first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Because we women are under siege, or so we are told, and it is our votes that the creators of the phony 'war on woman' want to garner, let's talk facts."
Lyons went on to defend GOP attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and to require women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of the fetus.
She also criticized congressional opponents of a measure that would prohibit "sex selection abortions in the United States to prevent discrimination against women."
But some GOP candidates sabotaged that line of defense, making insensitive comments about rape and abortion in the course of their campaigns. Several went on to lose their races, including state Rep. Roger Rivard of Rice Lake, who was narrowly defeated by Democrat Stephen Smith after saying that some women "rape easy"; and Todd Akin, who lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri after suggesting that women had biological ways to "shut down" pregnancy after a "legitimate rape."
According to exit polls conducted Nov. 6, women were a key voting bloc for Obama. Unmarried women supported Obama over GOP challenger Mitt Romney by a 36-percentage-point margin. Women in general went for Obama by 10 percentage points.
With that gender gap in mind, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona said on Fox News Sunday that the Republican Party needs to expand its tent to include such issues as immigration reform but should stay away from the polarizing issue of abortion.
"As far as young women are concerned, I don't think anybody like me - I can state my position on abortion, but other than that, leave the issue alone," he said.
Nicole Safar, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, also argues that the November results reflect a rejection of the "politicizing of women's health."
"We have seen these anti-choice policies hurt the politicians who support them across the country, and I think really for the first time we are seeing the significant reaction from voters and the public that this is enough."
But while Wisconsin went blue for Obama and U.S. Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin, who defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state Legislature, with the help of GOP redistricting, is more red than before.
And that is the "silver lining" for Wisconsin Right to Life, says Lyons.
"With both houses having a pro-life majority and a pro-life governor," she wrote in Wisconsin Right to Life's Nov. 12 newsletter, "prospects for some good legislation are excellent."
Wisconsin Right to Life has a few proposals in mind that haven't been tried before in the state. One would require a woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of her fetus, and another would prohibit abortions based on the sex of the unborn child.
These are the same items Lyons cited in her column countering the notion that there is a war on women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 21 states in some way require (PDF) the provision of ultrasounds by abortion providers. Of those, two states - Texas and Louisiana - mandate that a provider perform an ultrasound on the woman seeking an abortion and show and describe the image to her; two other similar laws are on hold pending court decisions.
Six states mandate an ultrasound and require that the provider offer the woman an opportunity to view the image.
Critics say forcing women to view or listen to details of an ultrasound is cruel, particularly for those who are forced to end a pregnancy due to severe fetal abnormalities or because of the mother's health. The court challenges to these laws could be heading to the Supreme Court.
Wisconsin Right to Life also wants to "prohibit the performance of an abortion on an unborn child who will experience pain from the procedure." It's effectively an attempt to ban abortions at 20 weeks based on the belief that fetuses feel pain at that stage of development. The group also wants to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions for state employees.
If introduced, the latter proposal will likely reignite a controversy over whether public monies are used to fund state employee insurance plans that cover abortions.
Former Gov. Jim Doyle, when he was Wisconsin Attorney General, issued an opinion in 1995 stating that "monies used to fund state employee insurance plans are not 'state or local funds' and, that, therefore the GIB [Group Insurance Board] is not subject to the limitation of section 20.927 when establishing and contracting for state and local employee health insurance plans."
According to state statute, "no funds of this state or of any county, city, village or town...shall be authorized for...the performance of an abortion."
Doyle argued that based on long-accepted legal principle, "state funds" are not all monies that pass through the state Legislature, and that "monies appropriated by the Legislature to the Public Employee Trust Fund are not state funds because those monies have a specialized purpose."
"The use of trust funds to pay for part of the purchase of health insurance does not amount to the direct funding of abortions with state or local funds," concluded Doyle.
Wisconsin Right to Life has called (PDF) Doyle's reasoning "absurd."
Sue Armacost, legislative and PAC director for Wisconsin Right to Life, did not return phone calls or emails to discuss the group's legislative agenda.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he would "gladly be a lead or cosponsor" on any of the proposals. Assembly Speaker-elect Robin Vos (R-Burlington) did not return a phone call seeking comment on whether he would prioritize the abortion measures.
But at a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Scott Walker kept his distance. "Those are not on the priority list," said Walker, who listed creating jobs, developing the workforce, continuing to transform education and government and building infrastructure as his top priorities. "We'll probably spend a whole lot more time early on focusing on getting an iron ore mine up and running in Iron County than we will on any of these other issues."
Walker, who is opposed to abortion, said that did not mean Wisconsin Right to Life agenda items wouldn't move later on in the session. But for now, he said, "people expect Democrats and Republicans alike to work on things that create more jobs, and those are the things we're going to home in on."
Safar says that any attempts to curb access to abortion would be out of sync with public opinion. A survey commissioned by Planned Parenthood, conducted in September by the Mellman Group, a Democratic polling firm, found that only 30% of the 600 Wisconsin residents polled thought "the government should pass more laws restricting the availability of abortion."
Seventy percent, on the other hand, agreed that "the government should not interfere with a woman's access to abortion."