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Wisconsin providers of reproductive care warn lone exception in abortion ban is unrealistic

Abortion rights supporters march in Milwaukee last May, ahead of the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade protections for people seeking an abortion.
Chuck Quirmbach
Abortion rights supporters march in Milwaukee last May, ahead of the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade protections for people seeking an abortion.

More Wisconsin doctors who perform abortions and provide other health care services for women are raising concerns about their patients' lives.

The state's 1849 abortion ban that took effect last summer following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs case has just one exception—to preserve the life of the mother. Kristin Lyerly is an OB/GYN from Green Bay who says she is currently working in Minnesota, where she can provide the full range of reproductive health care.

Dr. Lyerly says Wisconsin not allowing abortions to protect the mother's health is a big problem, as some medical decisions need to be made quickly.

"Women don't have a warning light that comes on when they cross that threshold. That makes it impossible for us to be able to communicate with folks like the local district attorney, as we're trying to determine when is a time that I can actually act to save my patient's life?" Lyerly says.

The life of the mother exception has an additional requirement. Two other physicians have to agree with the primary doctor to allow the abortion.

"We ensure that at least two other physicians document in a patient's medical that they also agree that this pregnancy poses a danger to the woman's life. So, sometimes, you're scrambling around trying to find two other physicians who are willing to document a patient's chart," says Dr. Jill Cousino, an OB/GYN in Rock County.

Dr. Kristin Lyerly speaks at a State Capitol news conference Monday.
Screenshot from WisconsinEye
Dr. Kristin Lyerly speaks at a State Capitol news conference Monday.

Lyerly notes not all women's health care clinics have a sizable staff. "If you're in Hayward, or Shawano, there may not be another physician to sign off for you."

Cousino says having to find other physicians or worrying if local prosecutors might bring criminal charges against medical staff can lead to other problems for patients of childbearing age.

"Often when we delay care for women, we increase the risk of them needing a hysterectomy, and we are removing their potential future childbearing," Cousino says.

Milwaukee critical care neurologist Ann Helms is the Wisconsin leader of a national medical group, the Committee to Protect Health Care.

She contends an "extraordinary" number of doctors oppose the 1849 ban.

"Who don't feel comfortable coming forward because doctors are not independent actors anymore. Doctors are employees. We all work for healthcare groups that largely told us not to become politically active. We are here in spite of the fact we've been asked to be quiet. This is not OK, and we are here saying this is not OK, in spite of people not liking us saying it," Helms says.

Whether being outspoken changes the minds of any state Republicans who—at most—only want limited expansions of the abortion ban exception is hard to say. Gov. Tony Evers (D) is suing in state court to overturn the 1849 law completely.

But that case is moving slowly in Dane County, as opponents try to get the lawsuit dismissed. Abortion rights advocates who want to elect in April a liberal majority to the State Supreme Court that would later reject the 1849 law, wouldn't have that majority for months.

Last week during a visit to Cudahy, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra suggested in the meantime, President Joe Biden may be able to use federal civil rights protections to help women who seek an abortion.

Monday, Lyerly responded to a WUWM question about the remarks from the leader of the federal health agency:

"They are doing a webinar about some of the potential pathways. I'll be very curious to know what they are thinking. To be very honest, the Biden Administration and the Evers Administration, they are looking at every possible pathway to make sure patients get the care they need and deserve, despite this political obstructionism. So, more to come on that, Chuck, but it's going to get interesting, I think," Lyerly says.

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