Gov. Tony Evers vows to offer doctors clemency if they are prosecuted under the state's 1849 abortion law

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LA CROSSE – Gov. Tony Evers declared Saturday that if doctors are prosecuted under Wisconsin's 1849 abortion law he'll offer them clemency.

Evers made his announcement during a rally at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention, an event being held in the shadow of Friday's U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case on abortion.

Under the state's 1849 law that may go into effect, Wisconsin doctors are banned from performing abortions except when saving the life of the mother.

Attorney General Josh Kaul (left) and Gov. Tony Evers (right)
Attorney General Josh Kaul (left) and Gov. Tony Evers (right)

"The 1849 law says that anybody providing an abortion is subject to a felony, one to six years," Evers said. "Did you ever think about the word clemency? I will provide clemency to any physician that is charged under that law."

Evers also said that his seven female grandchildren were "made second-class citizens" under the High Court decision.

"That's bull----," the governor said.

In his convention speech, Evers told the audience: "I don’t think that a law that was written before the Civil War, or before women secured the right to vote, should be used to dictate these intimate decisions on reproductive health."

Democrats went on the offense on the first day of their convention in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

"Freedom is at stake in this election," Attorney General Josh Kaul said in an interview.

More: There are 8 House races in Wisconsin, and Democrats aren't even competing in two of them

What would normally be a ceremonial and spirited kick-off to an intense campaign season took on a keen sense of urgency.

Speaker after speaker spoke about the Supreme Court decision.

"More than ever we need a governor who lives in 2022 Wisconsin, not 1849 Wisconsin," said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents Madison and the surrounding area.

In her speech, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin called the decision to overturn Roe "the elephant in the room."

"You're damn right we're going to fight like hell," Baldwin said, adding, "we will not be taken back."

Kaul and Evers were eager to fire up supporters for their re-election. A large primary field of Democratic U.S. Senate candidates was poised to appeal to delegates in a quest to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

But Democrats were focused on the reality that the U.S. Supreme Court decision brought an immediate end to abortion in Wisconsin.

"This is a huge issue and we're going to work hard doing what we can to find a way to put these rights back into place," Evers said in an interview. "But it's going to be an uphill battle, no question."

His model for a new law is out of reach in a Legislature dominated by Republicans.

"I don't want to reduce in any way the rights that women had," before Friday's High Court decision, he said.

Evers called Wisconsinites "savvy" and said they are interested in a range of issues, including education, health care, infrastructure and broadband.

Evers sought to contrast his low-key approach with Republicans running for governor. Businessman Tim Michels and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch lead the field, according to the recent Marquette University Law School Poll, with former 2018 GOP Senate runner Kevin Nicholson and state Rep.Tim Ramthun trailing.

"My opponents are already running a scorched earth campaign to divide our state," Evers said in his speech. "We don’t have to imagine what they’ll do if they’re in office, because they’ve already told us."

More: Marquette poll reveals an 'enthusiasm gap' that could become a factor in Wisconsin races for governor, Senate

For his part, Kaul said he'll continue to advocate for new legislation on abortion and that he anticipates litigation over the 1849 law.

"We've got to mitigate the harm this ban will potentially cause in Wisconsin, if it is found to be in effect," Kaul said in an interview. "And one of the ways we can do that is to have the Department of Justice not investigating or prosecuting anybody for alleged violations of that ban."

Asked if he could see not prosecuting violations of the abortion ban through a second, four-year term, Kaul said: "Absolutely."

"We make decisions every day at every law enforcement agency about how to use limited resources," he added. "And my view is that we should be using those resources to investigate and prosecute the most serious offenses."

Kaul chided the two main Republican rivals bidding for the party's nomination for attorney general, former legislator Adam Jarchow and Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney.

Kaul said the two men support the GOP probe led by ex-state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman of the 2020 election and would also embrace abortion restrictions.

"So it's a very stark contrast between using the Wisconsin Department of Justice as Gableman Part Two, or the abortion police, versus continuing to use it to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes in Wisconsin," he said.

On Sunday, the convention will take up the party's platform. Delegates will also hear from the large field of U.S. Senate candidates, including Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson.

GOP ties Evers to Biden, inflation

In a pre-convention media availability, Republicans sought to tie Evers to President Joe Biden, pounding Democrats over inflation, government spending and crime.

"The only way to describe the Evers administration and the Biden administration is abject failure," said Derrick Van Orden, who is running for Congress in the Third Congressional District.

"We're fully focused on holding the Democrats accountable," said Paul Farrow, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Asked about the court decision overturning Roe, Farrow said, "When you look at the impact of what the Supreme Court did, we need to keep in mind what they really said was 50 years ago an activist bench made a decision that wasn't constitutional and put that into place. So they're correcting that.

"Is it causing any change in the political landscape? When you look at the sides, I think there's there's a standard that people have, the Republicans know we're pro-life. The vast majority of people know that we stand for the sanctity of life from the beginning. And we'll continue to work on that."

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Democrats gather for convention, grapple with post-Roe world