Planned Parenthood, Wisconsin officials respond to threats to reproductive health care

By: - February 14, 2022 6:50 am

Planned Parenthood rally in Washington, DC (courtesy of PBS NewsHour (CC BY 2.0) 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0 )

Responding to a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature that is almost identical to the highly restrictive six-week abortion ban now in effect in Texas, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin held a press briefing Friday with Attorney General Josh Kaul and Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake, to discuss protecting reproductive freedom in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin state officials were joined by Drucilla Tigner, deputy director of strategic campaigns and partnerships for Planned Parenthood in Texas, who described, first-hand, the effects of the new Texas law.

The six-week gestation period specified in the law actually expires four weeks after conception, Tigner explained — “just two weeks after you miss a period” — and before many women realize they are pregnant.  The window for legal abortion in Texas is made even smaller by other restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that patients have two separate appointments with abortion providers.

“It's hard to overstate how bad it is in Texas.”

– Drucilla Tigner

Some women show up for their first appointment within the time period specified by the new law, but can’t make the deadline by the time they schedule a second appointment, Tigner said.

One patient missed her second appointment because she had to quarantine with COVID-19.

Another patient was a mother who came into a clinic straight from the bedside of her child who was in the hospital with cancer. She was struggling to care for the children she already had and, having missed the deadline for a legal abortion in Texas, was weighing whether to stay with her sick child or travel out of state to get an abortion. 

“We know people who have traveled to Alabama, to New Mexico, to Colorado, to Oklahoma; the states around us are overrun by people who need fundamental health care,” Tigner said.  

“It is a humanitarian crisis in Texas right now,” she added. “Thousands and thousands of people cannot get the care that they need.”

For patients and for the health care providers who have to turn them away, “it’s devastating,” Tigner said. “It’s hard to overstate how bad it is in Texas.”

Her message to Wisconsinites: “Before this bill has passed, before any devastation has been brought to your state, now is the time to get involved.”

Kaul made some specific suggestions, starting with his own pledge not to prosecute people under the state’s restrictive 1849 criminal abortion statute, which is still on the books, and which could come back into force if Roe v. Wade is overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a challenge in a Mississippi case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it is likely to decide this summer. 

“My recommendation to everybody who cares about reproductive freedom is to start planning for what the post-Roe world is going to look like right now,” Kaul said. “Because when June or July comes around, we may very well have a Supreme Court decision that ends Roe.”

Wisconsin’s criminal abortion ban, which could go into effect when that happens, is actually even more restrictive than the Texas law, Kaul said, since it bans abortion entirely except to save the life of the mother. Friends, family members and physicians can all be criminally prosecuted under the law — even for helping women travel to another county or another state to access abortion.

Passing legislation to eliminate the 1849 law is “critical,” Kaul said. “The sooner we do, the safer people will be for what comes after that, when the Jackson decision comes down.”

In addition to passing legislation, Kaul called on Wisconsin citizens to ask other prosecutors, district attorneys and sheriffs to clarify their position on enforcing criminal bans on abortion. 

“One of the things I’ve committed to is that if Roe is overturned my office will not investigate or prosecute any violations of that 172-year-old abortion ban in Wisconsin,” he said. Citizens should seek similar commitments from local law enforcement, he added.

“Local law enforcement agencies, whether police departments or sheriff’s offices, could conduct investigations and district attorneys potentially could bring prosecutions. So, you know, I think it’s important not only for the attorney general but also for sheriffs and DAs around the state to commit to what position they’ll take if Roe is overturned,” Kaul said.

Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch has promised to sign a Texas-style abortion ban into law in Wisconsin if she’s elected. If that came to pass, Kaul said, part of the problem for the state would be “that it’s enforced through what is essentially a bounty-hunting system.”

The law includes a $10,000 reward to private citizens who prove in court that someone has helped facilitate an illegal abortion.

“It puts our citizens in the business of trying to look into the medical decisions that our fellow citizens are making and try to insert themselves into the process to file these suits,” Kaul said. 

The effect will be to overburden the courts with lawsuits filed willy nilly, Kaul warned, instead of being vetted by prosecutors who use their discretion about when to bring cases. 

“This is a critical time to be active,” Kaul said. “ Tell your legislators tell your elected officials you do not want your freedoms significantly rolled back.”

Timberlake, who called herself a “proud Planned Parenthood alumna,” expressed the Evers administration’s commitment to reproductive health care. 

“We believe people need to be able to choose to become parents when they are ready to become parents,” she said. “We believe people need to not be obligated to become parents if that is their choice. And we believe people need to be healthy and well cared for as full people throughout their life course. So that means everything from access to contraceptive services, pregnancy testing, sexually transmitted infection services, breast and cervical cancer screening, abortion care. All of that fits under the broad umbrella of comprehensive reproductive health care that we believe people need.”

“We know that when access to abortion care is restricted, women’s health suffers,” she added, and “the health and well being of their families suffers.”

A recent DHS maternal mortality review across the state of Wisconsin shows an increase in the number of women dying during pregnancy and within 12 months of giving birth, Timberlake said. Among the causes are upticks in overdose deaths and suicide, which she said underscore the need for more and better health care.

“People with means, people with connections, people with additional options in their lives will continue to seek the care and the services that they need,” Timberlake said. “And the burden of policies like this one [the Texas-style abortion ban] will fall most heavily on people of color in our state, people who are low- and moderate income, people who are not as well connected and just don’t have as many options.”

To offer better care to pregnant women, babies, and families, Wisconsin should accept the federal Medicaid expansion, Timberlake said. (The state is currently one of only 12 that have refused to expand Medicaid to offer affordable health care coverage to thousands of eligible people.) 

She has hope that Wisconsinites can find common ground on the issue of taking better care of children and families.

Even as the two sides in the abortion debate seem hopelessly entrenched, it’s critical to keep reaching out and expressing pro-choice views, Timberlake added. ”If you stop trying to engage, the other side wins just by default. Right?” she said. “So I think reaching out, having those conversations, bringing people with you, thinking of ways to connect your personal experience to the personal experience of that legislator, their family — I don’t know that we have a choice but to stay in the dialogue. So please, please, please don’t give up.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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