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Abortion Battle Has Long History in Wisconsin

Marti Mikkelson

Update: A federal judge decided Wednesday, to continue blocking a new Wisconsin abortion rule, at least for the next two weeks. It requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Judge William Conley says he'll decide within a couple weeks, whether to continue or lift his order, until the issue goes to trial.

This is just the latest chapter here in a generations’ long fight over abortion. What have remained constant over the decades, are the fundamentally different perspectives.

“They are a human being with a body, soul and spirit. As a country, as a nation, we have a duty to protect these preborn people,” Olmsted says.

“People should be able to access health care, whether it’s abortion or whether it’s birth control,” Taylor says.

Maureen Taylor and William Olmsted are each positioned outside Affiliated Medical Services on Milwaukee’s east side but - on opposite sides of the street. The tiny clinic was licensed in 1979 to perform abortions and offer other reproductive services.

Olmsted is across the road, among abortion opponents holding signs and chanting. He says he’s been coming here nearly every day for the past five years. Beforehand, he spent a couple decades demonstrating outside other local clinics.

“I was up at Brown Deer and that closed and then I was down on Water Street and that closed and now I’m here at Affiliated on Farwell and Ogden. I’m hoping this will close. That would be nice,” Olmsted says.

Olmsted says while the new state law has sparked debate over abortion rights, he’s witnessed more overt battles. He says for instance, police arrested him in 1992 during massive protests outside a clinic in Brown deer.

“The crowds were so big the streets closed down,” Olmsted says.

Olmsted says he believes life begins at conception and a fetus is a baby, so he cannot stop fighting on their behalf.

Maureen Taylor says she has three daughters and three granddaughters, and she won’t stop lobbying for their right to choose whether to give birth.

Credit Marti Mikkelson
Maureen Taylor (left) and other volunteers help escort women safely into the clinic.

“All of these people who want to put their religious views before women’s health care,” Taylor says.

Taylor is one of several people wearing red vests - standing outside the clinic door. They escort women into the building. In fact, while we’re talking, two escorts walk to the corner to flank a woman headed this way.

Taylor says she’s been volunteering here for more than 20 years.

“I became involved with clinic defense in '92 when a large group of people were coming in from Buffalo, NY. They had tried to close clinics there and then started to go to different places where the laws were weak and they could try and block access to clinics,” Taylor says.

Taylor says clinic blocking began in the mid '70s, not long after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe versus Wade. Eventually, federal authorities prohibited protestors from interfering with business.

Yet Taylor says exchanges boiled again while the country debated so-called partial-birth abortion. She perceives emotions now reheating, with the passage of new state rules.

It is just the latest chapter, according to Tanya Atkinson. She’s executive director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. It formed back in 1935 – when abortion was illegal here.

“We knew of individuals who were helping get women resources so they could go to states where abortion was legal, trying to make those connections to ways to access safe abortion,” Atkinson says.

Atkinson says some Wisconsin women sought out secret providers here thereby facing unregulated procedures. So, pro-choice activists started building a legal case.

The pro-life movement here started taking shape, when it became evident the abortion issue would wind up in the Supreme Court. The group Wisconsin Right to Life formed in the 1960s, according to Legislative Director Susan Armacost.

She says, at the time, activism consisted of educating people in churches and civic organizations. Since losing Roe V. Wade, Right to Life has relentlessly pursued state regulations.

“We’ve passed numbers of bills dealing with taxpayer abortions, we’ve done the parental consent bill, last session the webcam abortion bill making sure that women who get abortion drugs are seen personally by the physician who is prescribing them and also making sure women are not coerced into having abortions,” Armacost says.

Armacost does not foresee the battle over abortion in Wisconsin and across the country ever ending. Passions on both sides are deeply rooted.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.