Capitol Punishments: The tip of the spear

A post-mortem for abortion complacency.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

A post-mortem for abortion complacency.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

“[T]he arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Inspiring, hopeful words, but like many Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s quotes, it’s taken out of context. 

As a short snippet, it sounds like King is saying justice is its own force in the world, a natural energy slowly guiding history, like gravity guiding the moon around the earth. But if you read the full text from King’s 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, what he’s actually saying is more complicated. King spoke about the Israelites’ long, tumultuous journey to freedom out of slavery, and the way the tribes splintered when treacherous mountains lay between them and the promised land. 


“This evening I want to deal mainly with the second group: those individuals that chose the line of least resistance, those individuals who didn’t want to go back to Egypt but who did not quite have the strength to move on to the Promised Land,” King said. “Whenever God speaks, he says, ‘Go forward.’ Whenever God speaks, he says, ‘Move on from mountains of stagnant complacency and deadening pacifity.’ So this is the great challenge that always stands before men.”

King gave this speech in 1965, when Civil Rights activists were being accused of being Communists, beaten, thrown in jail, and, as in the case of King’s friend, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first Mississippi field secretary, murdered. When he referred to “dark and difficult days ahead,” King knew from experience what that meant.

So when King said the arc of the moral universe would bend toward justice, it was because he and fellow activists were putting in the work, making the needed sacrifices, and in the end, they were fighting the lie of white supremacy. “We shall overcome because [Thomas] Carlyle is right: ‘No lie can live forever,'” King said during another part of the sermon.

In light of this week’s Supreme Court leak showing that the court plans to overturn Roe v. Wade, I have a confession to make: I have not been putting in the work or making the necessary sacrifices to fight for abortion access.

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I’m not alone in this; once a right is gained it’s hard to imagine it being taken away. Wisconsin is one of several states with a so-called “trigger law,” passed in 1849, that would make abortion illegal in most cases. The trigger law is limited to prosecuting doctors for conducting abortions, but the only thing that’s stopped Wisconsin Republicans from expanding it is Gov. Tony Evers’ veto pen

Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who had put forward a bill to remove the abortion ban, told me she wasn’t the first to make such a proposal, but “I think for a long time, people didn’t see it as a big deal.”

“Didn’t think that it was a problem to have on our books because, ‘Gosh, it’s not enforceable anyway. It’s unconstitutional,'” Subeck said. “It just wasn’t a priority.”

That disengagement and complacency has allowed lies about abortion to take over. We continue to call the Texas six-week abortion ban a “heartbeat bill,” even though at that stage fetuses do not have hearts, much less heartbeats. The legislature passed a bill requiring physicians to care for a fetus that survives an attempted abortion, completely distorting the nature of late-term abortions; over 90 percent of abortions happen in the first trimester, and those that do happen later, were wanted pregnancies that went horribly wrong. In the leaked draft decision, Justice Samuel Alito wrote “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973,” but the history of abortion is actually much more complicated

I had assumed that the anti-abortion movement was a cynical ploy to boost conservative evangelical voter turnout. The first sign the threat was serious, for me, was when Mitch McConnell refused to hold a hearing for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. What I see now is that abortion was the tip of the spear, used to push through an agenda of rolling back individual rights and environmental policies, tilting the scales of the economy even more in favor of the wealthy, and consolidating power. 

I used to think it was highly unlikely we would be in a position to lose a right we already have. Since the leak, legal and political experts have been speculating that other rights—from gay marriage, to mixed-race marriage, to even de-segregation—could also be on the chopping block. It’s hard to imagine, but this week has been a lesson in not taking our rights for granted. 

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