Democrat Tom Barrett is using the last days of the Wisconsin governor’s race to paint Republican rival Scott Walker as a radical conservative, with abortion and women’s reproductive rights the centerpiece of his argument.
Barrett first criticized Walker’s no-exceptions stance against legal abortions, a statement we rated True. In a new TV ad, Barrett repeats that claim and then adds this one:
"It turns out there's a lot we didn't know about Scott Walker," a narrator says as an image of a birth-control pill case dominates the screen. "Scott Walker wants to ban common forms of birth control, including the pill."
We rated as Barely True a claim by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin that Walker "tried to pass a law to allow pharmacists to block women's access to birth control." That claim centered on a bill that would let pharmacists refuse to dispense contraceptives on moral grounds.
Barrett’s new claim goes much further.
An outright ban on birth control?
As evidence, the Barrett campaign points to an endorsement Walker received by the group Pro-Life Wisconsin (running mate Rebecca Kleefisch was endorsed, too) and a questionnaire he filled out before receiving it.
There was little surprise when Walker won the endorsement of Wisconsin Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group. But the smaller, more staunchly conservative Pro-Life Wisconsin says it has not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate for years.
It insists that candidates, to get the endorsement, perfectly line up with its views as expressed on a survey.
Walker campaign spokeswoman Jill Bader said the survey, which Walker scored 100 percent on, does not include any birth control questions. That’s not quite true. It includes one that asks the pharmacist question and one that asks if candidates would block minors from receiving taxpayer-funded contraceptives. Walker answered yes to both.
Barrett’s campaign, though, points to the first question on the survey:
"Would you sign legislation that declares that a preborn child has an inalienable right to life from the moment of fertilization forward?"
The question refers to "personhood" rights, a growing national movement in some pro-life circles to use state laws or state constitutions to bestow full citizenship rights and protections to the unborn.
Pro-Life Wisconsin and related groups in other states oppose all forms of artificial birth control, They hope that "personhood" rights will bring a ban on all abortions -- and a ban on the pill, the group’s legislative director Matt Sande told PolitiFact Wisconsin.
Other anti-abortion groups have focused on a more direct route: The U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1973 held that a woman's decision to have an abortion is a private choice that is protected by the U.S. Constitution. That Roe vs. Wade decision still defines the issue.
Pro-Life Wisconsin’s definition of pregnancy as starting at fertilization differs from the worldwide mainstream view that it begins when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, said Raj Narayan, Medical College of Wisconsin physician and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.
Birth control pills work, when used properly, by preventing ovulation, not by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg, he said. In theory, birth control pills could prevent implantation, but it is unprovable scientifically, Narayan said.
In the view of Pro-Life Wisconsin, there are cases -- even if a very small percentage -- where a fertilized egg (already a full citizen, under the theoretical legislation) is prevented by the pill from attaching to the womb. That, they say, constitutes an abortion.
In contrast, Wisconsin Right to Life views the idea that the pill causes abortions as "speculation," according to executive director Barbara Lyons.
The view is disputed, too, by the mainstream medical community, as Narayan noted.
What’s important for our evaluation, though, is the political realm.
Did Walker know about -- and agree with -- the group’s views on birth control as causing abortion?
For the 2010 election, candidates were given survey instructions and a memo entitled "Hormonal Birth Control and its Abortion Causing Effect," according to Sande. That memo clearly lays out the group’s view that "any artificial action that works to destroy a human embryo is abortifacient in nature." It lumps "most if not all birth control drugs and devices" into that category.
Sande downplays the chances Pro-Life Wisconsin will succeed in its anti birth-control agenda because it believes society is not ready for it. But a birth control ban is the group’s aim. Its mechanism to get there is "personhood" legislation -- Question 1 on the candidate survey.
Since 2006, the group has been laying the groundwork for its proposed constitutional amendment. Elsewhere, such efforts are further along. Colorado voters will consider a "personhood" amendment in the Nov. 2, 2010 election.
We wanted to ask Walker to clarify his view on the topic. The campaign did not make him available. In an e-mail, Bader said: "Scott is pro-life. He believes that government has no role in whether adults choose to use birth control or not. This was Scott’s view of that question on the survey."
She noted -- as do we -- no direct question on a birth control ban was asked.
Barrett’s side countered that the implications of the question were made clear. Said spokesman Phil Walzak: "They want to currry favor and get that 100% rating, but when they are called on it they hedge."
Where does the group asking the survey question come down?
Sande, of Pro-Life Wisconsin, agreed Walker signed onto the concept based on his answer, but said he thought it would be unfair to draw the conclusion Walker supports a particular "personhood" initiative. After all, no proposed language was given. And the birth-control ban is not part of the group’s immediate legislative agenda.
Now it’s our turn.
The Barrett campaign makes a strong claim against Walker, saying he supports a ban on commonly used contraceptives. It bases its statement on a survey by Pro-Life Wisconsin that did not ask that question directly. Rather, Barrett -- and the group -- say it is embedded in a question about a potential legislation on "personhood," that is giving full human rights at the moment of fertilization.
In viewing the pill as abortion, not just birth control, there is no question the group is out of step with medicine -- and the larger group, Wisconsin Right to Life. Barrett argues by supporting the question in the survey, a candidate signs on to this view as well. Walker’s campaign disputes this. Walker did, however, did get the group’s memo which clearly outlined its views and goals. Did he read it? He should have if he is answering the group’s questions.
Ultimately, we don’t know -- and neither does the Barrett campaign, which leaves out important details in its hard-line statement. We rate the claim Half True.