Influence Peddler of the Month

Wisconsin Right to Life

October 1, 2015

Wisconsin Right to Life Logo

Wisconsin Right to Life is a Milwaukee-based statewide advocacy, lobbying and electioneering group that opposes abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

Wisconsin Right to Life uses 50 local chapters throughout the state to alert and organize its members and supporters about legislative, judicial and election matters that affect its issues. This geographically dispersed grassroots support on a handful of emotional issues allows Wisconsin Right to Life to focus its resources and use less time and money than most other special interest groups to exert its influence.

Wisconsin Right to Life has spent only about $260,000 on outside electioneering activities in 16 years, which is a small amount compared to the millions of dollars that some top-spending special interest groups have doled out on Wisconsin elections.

Most of Right to Life’s electioneering activities involve independent expenditures to support Republican and conservative candidates for statewide office and the legislature. Right to Life was among the earliest groups to engage in outside election spending on Wisconsin races when it began sponsoring independent expenditures, like mailings, phone calls, and radio, in 1998.

The group’s political action committee, and a state corporation created in 2010, spent about $230,000 on outside electioneering between 1998 and 2014. In addition, the organization spent an estimated $30,000 on undisclosed issue ads when it sponsored a statewide radio ad in the 2006 governor’s race to oppose then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s reelection bid.

In more recent races for governor, Wisconsin Right to Life spent a total of only about $6,750 in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 races for governor to support Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who opposes abortion, and oppose the Democratic candidates who ran against him.

The group also makes little in the way of direct campaign contributions to candidates compared to other special interests. From 1998 through 2014, the PAC has only made about $951 in direct campaign contributions to six candidates.

Republican control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature since the 2010 elections has helped Wisconsin Right to Life put numerous anti-abortion measures in the law books. Since 2005, Wisconsin Right to Life has spent about $278,000 on lobbying.

A measure now before the legislature, Assembly Bill 305, and likely to pass and receive Walker’s approval, would ban the sale and use of tissue, organs and other body parts from aborted fetuses for research. The measure is supported by Right to Life and religious and conservative groups and opposed by health professionals, academics and the biotechnology sector.

Earlier this year, the group successfully pushed for a state law that prohibits a woman from having an abortion at 20 weeks or later in her pregnancy. The law, which does not contain an exception for a pregnancy caused by rape or incest, calls for a three-and-a-half year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine for anyone who performs an abortion at 20 weeks or later, except for a medical emergency. The law also requires the doctor to perform the abortion using a method that gives the fetus the best chance of survival.

In 2013, the group backed a law that requires pregnant women to have an ultrasound before an abortion can be performed, except in medical emergencies. And in 2012, the group had more success when laws were passed that prohibited the use of abortion-inducing drugs; created mandatory counseling and a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion could be performed; and prohibited state health care exchange plans and public funding from covering the cost of abortions, except in medical emergencies and pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

In addition to its influence in the legislative and election arenas, Wisconsin Right to Life has been involved in key court cases in recent years that have stifled the enforcement or reform of campaign finance laws, particularly laws to regulate election time ads and other activities.

Among the group’s court successes was a:

  • 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. that found it was an unconstitutional prohibition on free speech for the government to regulate or ban so-called issue ads that praise or criticize federal candidates within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election, but do not expressly tell listeners how to vote in the election;
  • 2014 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Wisconsin Right to Life v. Barland, that struck down state rules that required outside spending groups to disclose their fundraising and spending for election-season issue ads that often criticize or praise a candidate without telling voters expressly how to vote in the election.
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