Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) reelection campaign is in a statistical dead heat, and abortion is at the center of the race. In recent weeks, Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has tried to throw out the state’s archaic 1849 abortion ban with a state-wide referendum vote, but the Republican-controlled legislature refuses to allow this. In new audio obtained by Jezebel from several private Republican Q&A sessions, Johnson appears to take conflicting, nonsensical, and frankly bizarre stances on the issue.
At one such session on Sept. 16 in Oshkosh, Johnson—who in May supported a 20-week federal abortion ban and has repeatedly cosponsored the Life at Conception Act and similar bills since 2011—said he was “not in favor” of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) recently introduced 15-week federal ban. But, Johnson clarified, only because it’s too soon:
“OK, so I’m not in favor of what Lindsey Graham just all of a sudden provided [inaudible]. It’s not the time, maybe at some point in time, maybe in the future, once this process is played out in all the states, maybe Congress needs to come in there and go, okay you’ve got a couple of outliers here, you better you know, better protect life a little bit sooner than that. But you know, the extreme position, by the way is from the left.”
At the same event in Oshkosh, recorded audio shows Johnson answer a question about his stance on the possibility of a state-wide referendum by repeatedly referencing a science museum display featuring embryos and fetuses at every stage of development—conception on the left end of the spectrum and a living baby on the other. Johnson then stated his support for an abortion referendum in not just Wisconsin, but in every state—as long as voters first looked at the aforementioned, 1970s museum display of jarred fetuses before making their decision:
“So, what I would like to see is a single issue referendum in every state, not combined with any other election. … I think this [abortion] has been a cancer on our body politic for 50 years, that the way we cure that cancer is with a thoughtful, compassionate, sympathetic discussion, then a vote of the people and figure out where that bell curve comes. …
First time I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago—have you seen that marvelous display? Thirty-six bottles of egg all the way through full gestation. I probably saw it right about when Roe v. Wade was decided in the early 70s. I said, here’s how to decide this debate, is, do a long term longitudinal study, have people vote, ‘At what point do you think you ought to protect life?’ My guess is it would be way down on the left hand side of that display.”
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Johnson made virtually identical comments at a Republican Q&A session in Greenleaf on Sept. 23, this time adding, “Before you make that decision, before you take that vote on that referendum, you ought to know how big these little babies are.” He continued, “I think we all agree that society has a responsibility to protect life, right? That’s why you have laws against murder. The question is, should we do it inside the womb? I think if you do it that way, my guess is you protect life, the bulk of Americans, way on the left side of that display a lot closer to conception.” It sure sounds like Johnson wants abortion banned, if not at conception, then probably even earlier than Graham’s 15-week ban.
The senator’s reelection campaign did not immediately respond to request for comment about his statements in the audio obtained by Jezebel.
However much Johnson, like other Republican candidates for Senate and up and down the ballot, might equivocate on or literally hide their deeply unpopular anti-abortion stances, it’s pretty clear where he stands—whether you’re looking at his own voting history, or his comments at private events.
Just last week, while Republicans in Wisconsin’s legislature continued to refuse a referendum, Johnson not only supported one but sent the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a sample of a ballot he’d like voters to receive, which would ask, “At what point does society have the responsibility to protect the life of an unborn child?” The ballot lists 10 options, beginning with “from the moment of conception” and ending with “Never—an unborn child has no right to life.”
Beyond stating the obvious of how dangerous such a referendum could be, possibly yielding full constitutional rights for fertilized eggs and explicitly criminalizing miscarriage and IVF, it’s almost laughable how Johnson arrived at this conclusion. Actual doctors, experts, and pregnant people know what’s at stake if abortion is banned—but Johnson, from glimpsing a single display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago from the ‘70s, is convinced he’s the expert on all this. I almost have to respect the truly astounding levels of straight, white, male confidence—if only Johnson weren’t applying it to strip my rights to bodily autonomy.
In any case, while it’s almost impossible to make sense of what Johnson is saying about Graham’s 15-week ban or Johnson’s personal conditions for a referendum vote, his comments certainly make one thing clear: Republicans have no idea what they’re talking about with regard to pregnancy and abortion. Their best defense for all the widespread pain, suffering, and terror they’ve inflicted on women, pregnant people, families, and their doctors, is apparently a cutesy display of embryos in jars at a museum in Chicago.