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Tuesday, July 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Wisconsin Right to Life sets modest agenda

Barbara Lyons
Barbara Lyons
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Every year Isthmus gets a phone call from the press office of Wisconsin Right to Life: Executive Director Barbara Lyons will be in Madison on such and such a day -- can she come in and talk about WRL's legislative agenda?

Then about a month later, the powerful anti-abortion leader appears all by her lonesome to deal with the pointed -- sometimes really pointed -- questions from Isthmus editors and reporters.

I'm always impressed. Too many conservative pols and interest groups blow us off. Not Lyons. She's unfailingly polite and willing to engage the tough questions we throw at her. More plaudits for showing up without handlers.

Lyons appearance Tuesday found her more low-key than usual. Gov. Jim Doyle's convincing re-election and the Democrats capture of the state Senate have put a crimp in WRL's once formidable legislative agenda.

The group, after 39 years and many legislative successes, may be losing momentum. "Donor numbers have fallen in recent years," said Lyons, adding that is true for all organizations. "We have a nation of non-joiners."

Still, Wisconsin Right to Life remains a lobbying powerhouse, in part because of its for-real grassroots organization. Lyons said WRL has identified a half-million Wisconsin households "that share our views," though only 25,000 have given money over the past two years.

In 2007, outreach and group building -- as well as two major court cases -- appear to be a bigger WRL priority than pushing for change at the Legislature. When I asked if WRL was fronting a more modest legislative agenda, Lyons replied, "very much so -- it's the recognition of reality."

WRL's sole legislative initiative, "The Coercive Abortion Prevention Act," would require patients seeking abortions to sign a statement affirming that they hadn't been coerced into the procedure.

"A woman should know she has an ally on her side, and that is the law -- that it is illegal to force a woman to have an abortion," Lyons said.

But she admitted it's difficult to define what exactly constitutes coercion, and the bill as drafted provides no definition. Nor is there a penalty for would-be coercers; rather a civil penalty would be levied against a doctor who fails to have the statement signed by an abortion patient.

Lyons isn't optimistic the bill will pass.

Her group seems much more invested in legal strategy, especially two major lawsuits dealing with free-speech issues. One, pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenges the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law's restrictions on interest groups advertising before elections. The other, just filed in federal district court, seeks to overturn state rules that prevent Wisconsin judicial candidates from giving their opinions on political issues. (This week, Judge John Shabaz declined WRL's request to suspend the rules while the case is pending.)

More than anything, Lyons seemed charged up by WRL's outreach efforts. The group is sponsoring a meeting this week in Milwaukee of pro-lifers between the ages of 25 and 40: "It's kind of a lost group for us."

WRL has also stepped up efforts to recruit high school and college students by offering grants and training programs; currently, WRL counts 19 pro-life groups on Wisconsin college campuses.

Lyons' group has also taken to the Web in a big way, buying key advertising words on Google like "abortion" and "teenage pregnancy" in hopes of steering young women to pro-life sites like TeenBreaks.com, StandUpGirl.com, and 123GiveLife.com.

One thing's for sure. Lyons, who has spent exactly half her 66 years as a pro-life activist, doesn't expect the anti-abortion struggle to end anytime soon. In fact, even after decades of Republican presidents picking U.S. Supreme Court justices, Lyons expects abortion to continue to remain legal.

"If you look at it objectively, there aren't sufficient votes to reverse Roe v. Wade," she said. She counts only two sure votes for reversal -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. As for the potential votes of the two recent President Bush appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, she replies, "We don't make assumptions."

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