Providers consider what they’ll do if abortion is outlawed in Wisconsin

By: - May 11, 2022 6:45 am
Capitol building at night light from below with a sign spelled out below in lights: Stand with WI Women"

Stand with Wisconsin Women | Photo by Joe Brusky via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

With a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would overturn the constitutional right to abortion looming in the coming weeks, health care providers are preparing for how to best serve their patients seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

“We are all, unfortunately, preparing for every possible outcome and looking for where we can hopefully send our patients to get safe medical care in a medical facility,” said Dr. Emily Buttigieg, an obstetrician/gynecologist who spoke on a Zoom call Tuesday with reporters. “Ideally, this doesn’t happen. But we are looking into every kind of option — knowing that for some of our patients they may not have any option, which is terrifying.”

Participants in the online news conference, organized by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, spoke about the impact of a draft Supreme Court opinion that was reported last week in which five justices had indicated they supported overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

If the ruling follows the leaked draft when it is finally issued, probably in June, a Wisconsin law enacted in 1849 that makes abortion a felony would once again take effect. 

“This would effectively ban nearly all abortions in Wisconsin,” said State Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), the Assembly minority leader, who also took part in the Tuesday news conference. “Doctors like the ones on this call could be thrown into prison for doing the job that they were trained to do — to do what is best for their patients.”

Without access to legal abortion, “Women will resort to unsafe methods and self induced abortions as we have seen in the past and in other countries when abortion was restricted,” said Dr. Kathy Hartke, an obstetrician/gynecologist who has practiced for nearly 40 years.

Hartke has retired from clinical practice and now is a member of the state’s maternal mortality review team. Hartke said she learned how to provide abortions in her medical training and has “done terminations for certain causes, particularly for lethal anomalies and significant problems like rupture of membranes in the second trimester,” when she was practicing.

“I have already contacted my colleagues that are providing services,” Hartke said. If Roe is overturned, “I will be willing to go to another state and get licensed and serve as a provider for the women who need it and whose lives can be saved and made better.”

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, which provides a range of health care services and also provides abortions at some of its Wisconsin locations, has already signaled that the organization expects a further legal battle over the 1849 law if Roe is overturned.

“We certainly do not believe that Wisconsin’s criminal abortion ban, from a legal standpoint, should be enforceable,” said Mike Murray, a Planned Parenthood executive, in a phone interview. “However, we know that there are others that may view that differently. And that there might be uncertainty about whether or not that was enforceable until it’s determined by a court, one way or another.”

Murray, vice president of governmental affairs and external relations, said the organization has been consulting with its lawyers on both legal strategies and how it can best operate and serve patients with the Wisconsin law in effect and Roe overturned.

“We have been doing everything that we can to make sure that Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin continues to provide all the types of support and care that would remain legal in Wisconsin,” he said. That includes providing contraception and other family planning care and a range of other preventive health services. 

It would also include offering patients “information and support, including financial support, to access and to navigate care in a state where abortion remains safe and legal,” Murray said. 

The closest such states are Illinois and Minnesota as a result of laws or state court decisions essentially codifying abortion rights under state law. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has been working to ensure its patients can obtain care through Planned Parenthood organizations in both states.

Murray said demand could also increase for some services in Wisconsin in a post-Roe era.

As clinics in adjacent so-called “haven states,” where abortion is more accessible, focus “more of their bandwidth on providing abortion care,” he said, residents of those states who need family planning and preventative health care services may find it easier to schedule and obtain that care in Wisconsin.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.