Planned Parenthood had some initial reservations about endorsing Kathleen Vinehout when she ran for state Senate in 2006. After all, the farmer and former college professor from Alma even acknowledged that she was a board member of Democrats for Life when seeking the group's endorsement.
But Planned Parenthood ultimately endorsed Vinehout, who won office in 2006, was reelected in 2010 and now says she will run against Gov. Scott Walker if a recall election is triggered (see Opinion). The endorsement was based on Vinehout's "100% pro-choice candidate questionnaire," says Nicole Safar, legal and policy adviser for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.
So Planned Parenthood felt betrayed when, during committee debate over a bill designed to ensure access to birth control, Vinehout authored an amendment to allow pharmacists and pharmacies with religious objections to refuse to dispense contraceptives and send women elsewhere. Vinehout also offered an amendment that eliminated the clarification in the bill that birth control should not be included in the definition of abortion in Wisconsin statutes.
Both amendments passed with the support of Republicans on the committee, but the state Senate ultimately passed a version of the bill without Vinehout's restrictions. That bill failed to win Assembly approval, but a measure that requires pharmacies to dispense birth control without delay was later passed in the 2009-10 budget.
Because of Vinehout's amendments, and other disagreements with her over women's health issues, Planned Parenthood took the unprecedented move of rescinding its endorsement, says Safar.
Vinehout has consistently maintained that she offered a so-called conscience clause exemption to ensure that the bill would not violate the Wisconsin Constitution, which states that no "control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted." She also says that it is "not a common problem" for pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions.
Perhaps most troubling to pro-choice activists, Vinehout claims that the current law does what she intended to do with her amendment. "With the prescription drug bill, my 2008 amendment did include a conscience clause," she said in a Feb. 5 statement. "The final version, passed in the 2009 budget, was better language even though the effect was the same."
NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin issued a Feb. 3 statement saying that was not true. Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), who was political director of Planned Parenthood while the bill was being deliberated, concurs.
"Her amendment was the antithesis to what is current law," says Taylor, stressing that Vinehout's amendment would have allowed pharmacies and pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control on site.
Taylor gives Vinehout credit for supporting such things as comprehensive sex education in the schools, but says the senator's misrepresentation of her record on birth-control access raises questions about her judgment and truthfulness.
"Can you trust this person to do what she says she will do?"
Vinehout says she won't respond to what she calls Taylor's "name-calling," but is sticking to her guns on the intent of her amendment, which she says she crafted from available case law at the time. She argues the final law puts the responsibility to dispense birth control on the pharmacy, not pharmacist, which ultimately satisfied her concerns about violating the state Constitution.
Speaking like she's already on the stump, Vinehout adds: "People want a governor who will pay attention to the details of the Constitution."