Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did nothing to refute the idea that Republicans are waging a war on women late last week when he quietly signed three controversial bills that limit access to abortion services and sex education and repealed the state's Equal Pay Enforcement Act, on the eve of the holiday weekend.
Walker signed the bills on Thursday but did not officially announce the move until Friday, when his office released a list of 51 bills the governor signed in those two days. Democrats have already blasted Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature for advancing policies they say perpetuate a nationwide trend targeting women's reproductive rights.
He might have thought none of us are watching because it's Good Friday, but all of us women are watching, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, one of four Democrats competing to run against Walker in a June 5 recall election, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week.
The first of a series of provocative bills places a ban on abortion coverage -- aside from cases of rape, incest or medical necessity -- in state health insurance policies obtained through a health insurance exchange, which will be created through the federal health care overhaul law in 2014. While opponents stress the regulation could make it difficult for some low-income women to obtain the procedure, it's perfectly legal; the federal law allows states to prohibit abortion coverage through the exchange.
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Far more contentious is a measure requiring women seeking an abortion to have one-on-one medical exam and consultation with a doctor alone, away from friends and family, so the doctor can determine whether someone is pressuring the woman to undergo the procedure. Physicians who break the law could be charged with a felony.
Republicans insist the law will ensure women are not coerced into undergoing abortions and will prevent faulty physician consultations via a Web camera. However, the Wisconsin Medical Society -- which, along with Democrats, asked Walker to veto the measure in question -- argues the bill infringes on doctor-patient confidentiality by unfairly subjecting them to prosecution based on what occurs in the examining room between physician and patient.
Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Permitted
Under the law known as SB 237, Wisconsin schools that teach sex education must promote marriage and stress that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The change will allow public schools to offer abstinence-only sex education courses, which had been barred since 2010 under a law passed by Democrats when they controlled the Legislature.
The new law represents a dramatic shift from current state law requiring teachers to instruct students on U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved birth control options. Opponents of the law insist there is clear evidence to suggest abstinence-only policies could be detrimental. They note fact that the United States still has one of the highest teen pregnancies rates in the world, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, a CDC study released in January found a strong correlation between unintended pregnancies and a lack of sex education. In a survey of 5,000 teen mothers who gave birth between 2004 and 2008, half of the respondents said they were not using any birth control when they got pregnant. Moreover, one-third of the respondents said they did not use birth control because they didn't believe they could get pregnant, a statistic the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy said underscores how much misperception, ambivalence and magical thinking puts teens at risk for unintended pregnancy.
Walker Repeals Equal Pay Law
In what was perhaps his most surprising move, Walker signed a bill repealing the state's 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which made it easier for victims of wage discrimination to have their day in court.
The law allowed individuals to plead their discrimination cases in the less costly state circuit court system, rather than just in federal court, a provision the newest legislation rolled back. Jeff Hynes, the president of the Wisconsin Employment Lawyers Association, told the Journal Sentinel the changes sends a signal to employers that mistreat their workers that they can get away with it every time.
The governor and the Republican leadership in Wisconsin have effectuated a one-two punch with respect to employees' rights to get any meaningful remedy in discrimination cases, Hynes told the newspaper.
The law approved by Walker removes the ability for victims of wage discrimination to go to court for compensatory and punitive damages, although they still have the ability to seek back pay. Hynes noted that Walker previously signed legislation that puts a limit on the amount of attorney's fees victims can recover in lawsuits, making it even less likely that wronged employees will take their cases to court.
Under the new law, there will be no remedy for justice under state employment law for women who are sexually harassed in the workplace, or for minorities who are subjected to racial epithets and other signs of discrimination.
Those who support the repeal say the 2009 law was burdensome because it forced companies to pay out large settlements to employees in cases where they did not believe wrongdoing had taken place. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, who sponsored the measure, said the repeal will free up funding so employers can invest in companies and create jobs.
The ratio of women's to men's earnings in the state reached its highest point in 2010 -- 82.8 percent -- after the passage of the 2009 equal pay law, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Walker's repeal of the equal pay law is a reflection of Walker's -- and the Republican Party's -- willingness to undermine both women's health and economic security.
As he campaigned across Wisconsin, Mitt Romney repeatedly praised Gov. Scott Walker's leadership, calling him a 'hero' and 'a man of courage,' she said. Does Romney think women should have the ability to take their bosses to court to get the same pay as their male coworkers? Or does he stand with Gov. Walker against this?