Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a meeting with area Republicans on April 19, 2015, in Derry, N.H.
Jim Coleā€”AP
By Alex Altman and Zeke J Miller
June 4, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is under fire from Democrats for supporting legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape or incest.

The unannounced presidential candidate told reporters Monday that he would sign a 20-week abortion ban proposed by the Badger State legislature, regardless of whether it includes rape or incest exemptions.

“I think for most people who are concerned about that, it’s in the initial months when they are most concerned about it,” Walker said. “In this case, it’s an unborn life, it’s an unborn child, that’s why we feel strongly about it. I’m prepared to sign it either way they send it to us.”

A version of the bill passed by the Wisconsin House of Representatives does not include exceptions for rape or incest but does have a provision permitting abortions that would save the life of the mother. It would also allow the mother or father to seek civil damages against a doctor who carried out an abortion after 20 weeks.

The issue is a potentially perilous one for Walker. Polls show broad support among voters, including a majority of Republicans, for legal abortions in at least some instances, such as when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. The last three Republican presidential nominees—Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush—all backed such exemptions.

Walker’s political opponents painted his position as extreme. “Once again, Scott Walker has placed his own rigid, backward ideology ahead of the best interests of the people of his state,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “Already, this bill takes away a decision that should be between a woman and her doctor. Already, it doesn’t allow for any exceptions even for survivors of rape or incest. And now, shocking new details show that Scott Walker wants to go even further to take away a woman’s say in her own health. Rape survivors deserve more protections under the law, not less.”

Democrats have had political success in recent years skewering conservatives for ill-considered statements about women’s health. In 2012, Barack Obama earned the support of 56% of female voters, compared to 44% for Romney, after the Democrats made the GOP’s alleged “war on women” a centerpiece of campaigns up and down the ballot. Walker is not the only national Republican to face questions on the issue as the 2016 campaign gets underway. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul found himself in hot water shortly after announcing his presidential campaign two months ago when he wouldn’t say whether he would support exceptions to abortion bans.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker’s political committee, Our American Revival, defended the governor’s stance. “A majority of Americans agree with Governor Walker that life after five months should be protected,” she told TIME. “Governor Walker has been very clear that he will sign a bill passed by the legislature to ensure the state of Wisconsin protects life after five months.”

“What’s far outside the mainstream in this country is the Democrat Party’s disregard for babies capable of feeling pain,” Strong added. “It’s unfortunate that far-left extremists are eager to twist an issue that most Americans have consensus on.”

Walker’s position on the bill is not new. In a March letter to the conservative Susan B. Anthony List, the two-term governor said he would sign the 20-week abortion ban and advocate for it on the federal level.

Such a stance could be a boon to Walker’s hopes of capturing the Iowa caucuses, which are dominated by social conservative activists. But they could backfire on the all-but-certain presidential contender by leaving him vulnerable to partisan attacks, especially should he become the Republican nominee.

It’s an issue the GOP has hoped to avoid. Since the 2012 election, Republican strategists have sought to neutralize the “war on women” trope by embracing over-the-counter birth control, championing female candidates and largely avoiding rape-related gaffes.

“The Democrats were painting us as the caveman party,“ says Katie Packer Gage, a former top aide to Romney and founder of Burning Glass Consulting, a firm that has focused on helping male Republican candidates talk about issues important to women.

Packer Gage acknowledged Walker’s comments could hurt him. But she said the 20-week abortion ban, if properly handled, could be a winning issue for Republicans in the general election. “We have [Democrats] a bit backed into the corner because the public support is there, even among women,” she told TIME. “Many people believe that if you haven’t figured this out in 20 weeks, well, the decision has probably already been made and you should probably go forward.”

Liz Mair, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Walker, noted that many women who support the right to an abortion draw a distinction between late-term abortions and those performed during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Mair, who supports a woman’s right to an abortion in the first trimester, argued it is extreme to support abortions during the final three months of a pregnancy if the mother’s life is not at risk.

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