Healthcare providers in Wisconsin are stuck between what is best for their patients and what complies with the law following Dobbs v. Jackson, the US Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade’s precedent.
Without the federal protection of Roe v. Wade guaranteeing the constitutionality of abortion access, Wisconsin defaults to a pre-Civil War era abortion ban that only leaves an exception in cases where the health and safety of the pregnant person is at risk.
Between the Supreme Court decision and July 14th, Planned Parenthood Illinois clinics have reported a 1,000 percent increase in Wisconsin patients seeking abortion care, according to NBC15.
Currently, doctors are having difficult conversations with their pregnant patients who are healthy now but fear complications later in the pregnancy. Dr. Shefaali Sharma, an obstetrician-gynecologist working in Madison, says one of her patients, a mother of two, pleaded with her, saying, “I need you to pick me. I need you to choose me because I have two kids at home.”
A great number of Sharma’s patients have expressed their concerns, fearful that the health of their unborn children may take priority over their own lives. Sharma says that among the 30 patients she saw over the course of a week earlier in mid-July, more than half of them brought up the need to advocate for their own health in “some way, shape, or form.”
“Basically, we are stuck between taking care of our patients or possibly risk going to jail,” said Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a Wisconsin-based OB-GYN and the legislative chair for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Some of us feel hopeless.”
Wisconsin state law can hold abortion providers criminally liable but not the patients seeking the procedure. Miriam Seifter, an associate law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said penalizing pregnant people for seeking an abortion has been unpopular to date and hasn’t been part of public policy as of yet, but “in this legal landscape, it’s not an impossible consideration.”
Before Roe was even overturned, Wisconsin restricted access to the FDA-approved pair of pills that induce medical abortions: misoprosotol and mifepristone. Seifter also notes that Wisconsin practices follow additional steps compared to other states, such as “in-person examination by a physician and in-person administration of the medication.” Furthermore, online providers are required to send the pills to an address where telemedicine abortion is legal, like Illinois or Minnesota.
This, however, has not deterred some providers from mailing pills to Wisconsin directly. Aid Access, for instance, a nonprofit based in Europe, “has been sending pills by mail to Wisconsin residents since 2018,” according to Jessica Dalby, a family doctor at University of Wisconsin Health. Aid Access’s website states that they also provide counseling from a doctor and help desk before, during, and after the process.
Dalby and Dr. Allie Linton, an associate medical director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, have no concerns about women taking abortion pills without a physician present. Linton says, “We do know that self-managed abortion, especially when sourced from reputable sites, is safe and patients are able to manage their abortions at home,” and Dalby agrees that “the pills are very safe.”
According to NBC15, Planned Parenthood Illinois is teaming up with its Wisconsin counterpart to facilitate transporting Wisconsin patients seeking abortion care to Illinois where they can get the procedure done, and Linton is one of the many doctors who have traveled across state lines to Illinois in order to meet the demand.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has offered clemency to doctors who are prosecuted and convicted for performing abortions. Attorney General Josh Kaul has stated he will not enforce the state’s abortion plan.
At the direction of the governor, Kaul filed a lawsuit on June 28th that “seeks to have the court clarify that Wisconsin’s 19th century abortion ban is not in effect,” according to Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesperson Samantha Standley, citing more recent laws which supercede the ban.
Dr. Laura Berghahn, a obstetrician-gynecologist who works with Sharma, rather succinctly (albeit grimly) comments on the state of reproductive care in Wisconsin right now: “If I were a young OB GYN, I would not practice in Wisconsin.”