Advocates discuss practical, political implications for Wisconsin if Roe v Wade is overturned

By: - May 6, 2022 6:45 am
Lisa Subeck speaks on abortion at Capitol

State Reps. Lisa Subeck and Kelda Roys at an abortion rights rally outside the Capitol on May 5, 2022.

“We have to remember that this is still a draft opinion and not a formal decision, and abortion remains legal in Wisconsin today,” said Tanya Atkinson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. Atkinson spoke during an online town hall meeting her organization convened on Wednesday to discuss the implications of the leaked draft opinion joined by a majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Planned Parenthood Wisconsin’s doors remain open and abortion services are available to patients who need an abortion,” Atkinson said. Still, she added, “it looks like they’re poised to fully overturn Roe.”

Planned Parenthood and abortion rights advocates have been preparing for the possibility that Roe will be completely overturned. In Wisconsin, an 1849 criminal statute that is unenforceable as long as Roe stands makes providing an abortion a felony. Should Roe be overturned this year, as expected, Planned Parenthood would stop offering abortion services in Wisconsin immediately on the day the decision comes down. Staff plan to pivot to helping patients who can no longer access abortion in Wisconsin travel to neighboring states.

“We will have navigators that will help navigate patients to a state that respects people’s ability to make their own health care decisions,” Atkins said, naming Illinois and Minnesota as two possible destinations.

Other preparations by an internal working group at Planned Parenthood include exploring getting Wisconsin abortion providers licensed in Illinois “so that they may provide abortion care where it remains legal,” said Michelle Velasquez, legal director for advocacy at Planned Parenthood. Nurses, doctors and support staff in Wisconsin are also prepared to work with family planning staff in surrounding states to help manage an expected surge of 30,000 or more patients from around the Midwest into states where abortion remains legal.

Some Wisconsin staff are also preparing to assist with family planning services for out-of-state patients who may have difficulty receiving non-abortion services during the surge, Velasquez said.

Planned Parenthood Wisconsin is also preparing to advocate for people seeking abortion services who are under court-ordered guardianship, civil commitment, or other orders from the child welfare or criminal justice systems not to leave the state, by filing motions and making requests with the appropriate authorities. 

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates continue to push for the repeal of Wisconsin’s criminal abortion ban — statute 940.09, which holds that “Any person, other than the mother, who intentionally destroys the life of an unborn child” is guilty of felony and defines “unborn child” as “a human being from the time of conception until it is born alive.”

Because the law includes a six-year statute of limitations, Wisconsin’s Planned Parenthood clinics will not take the risk of providing abortions, even though Attorney General Josh Kaul has said he will not pursue charges against abortion providers under the 173-year-old law. Even if Kaul and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who support abortion rights, win re-election this year, a subsequent administration could choose to prosecute abortion providers under the law, which includes penalties of up to six years in prison.

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin plans to provide resources, including help with bus tickets, for patients,  not direct transportation out of state. But in answer to a question in the town hall, Velasquez said, “The way the criminal ban is worded, I don’t think there would be any potential criminal or civil liabilities for driving somebody out of the state of Wisconsin to access health care in a place where that care remains legal.”

While Kaul has pledged not to use his office to investigate or prosecute abortion providers under what he calls an outdated statute, Eric Toney, the Fond du Lac County district attorney and a Republican candidate for attorney general, has said he would prosecute abortion providers under the 19th century criminal ban, as has his Republican primary opponent, Adam Jarchow. 

“Josh Kaul’s unwillingness to enforce the laws of Wisconsin should disqualify him from the job of Attorney General,” Jarchow said in a statement. “As a pro-life father of two, I will always support the right to life.”

In a rally at the Capitol Thursday, pro-choice Democratic legislators warned Wisconsinites, a large majority of whom have consistently supported keeping abortion legal over the last decade, that if Roe is overturned “states will be the last line of defense for abortion access.”

“Abortion is health care. It is not criminal activity,” said state Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison). 

Subeck reminded the crowd that Gov. Tony Evers recently blocked several Republican bills banning abortion in Wisconsin (including a Texas-style ban that included a bounty for people who turn in neighbors and family members who help women access abortion). “If a Republican governor takes office, they will not stop with this pre-Civil War law. They will pursue even more extreme restrictions,” she said.

Republican candidates for governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R-Campbellsport) and Kevin Nicholson all support reinstating Wisconsin’s historic criminal abortion statute without exceptions for rape or incest. 

“We can stop this by electing Democrats at every single level of government,” Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said at the rally Thursday.

All of Wisconsin’s Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate have issued statements supporting abortion rights and calling on Congress to pass a law codifying the protections in Roe v. Wade. 

Wisconsin’s Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Ron Johnson embraced the draft decision overturning the landmark abortion rights decision.

“This is a really good decision, this is what should have happened 50 years ago,” Sen. Ron Johnson said Thursday on a rightwing talk show.

Whether to make abortion legal is “a profound moral issue,” Johnson added,  “and it’s so profound, nine unelected judges should not make that decision for all of society, not one individual should. We all ought to collectively come to a decision on a state by state basis initially. You know, it might be kind of a messy process, but we’re not going back 50 years.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.