Reproductive rights groups have filed lawsuits challenging multiple abortion restrictions in a number of states, including Indiana, Texas, Virginia, and now Wisconsin.
In a federal challenge filed last week, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin is seeking to overturn three laws approved by Republican lawmakers. The organization argues the statutes make it hard for women — particularly in rural areas — to get an abortion.
One of the laws prevents nurses from performing abortions. Another requires a woman seeking medication that causes abortions to see the same doctor on two separate visits. The third law requires a doctor to be physically present when dispensing drugs that induce an abortion.
Mel Barnes, the legal and policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, says the laws are unnecessarily restrictive. Take the law requiring two visits to the same doctor. Barnes says that women already have to arrange for transportation, time off of work, and in many cases, childcare — twice — because there's a law on the books requiring them to have two visits within 24 hours.
She says that making them see the same doctor twice for abortion-inducing drugs can have an outsized effect on women in rural communities. "Which is really a lot of our state," she says. "Currently, if you need to access abortion care in Wisconsin you’re almost certainly traveling to Madison or Milwaukee and making that trip twice. So, women in rural areas and women on the far northern area of our state are travelling a much longer distance."
And, Barnes says, the rationale also doesn't hold when it comes to the law requiring the doctor to be present when dispensing drugs.
“If you think about it, when you go to the doctor and get a prescription, that’s not how any other medical practice works," she says. "In fact, when the same pills are used in other medical contexts, like miscarriage management care, there’s no requirement that that physician be physically present.”
Barnes says in recent years, more states have been enacting abortion restrictions, so challenges, like the one Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin just filed in federal court in Madison, are becoming more common.
But there’s another reason such lawsuits have become more frequent. That’s according to Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute — a national reproductive health research group that supports abortion rights. She says abortion-rights groups have been buoyed by a US Supreme Court ruling in 2016, which struck down a Texas law. It required doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.
“Coming out of that, that was really a shot in the arm for abortion rights supporters," she says. "It gave a new momentum around repealing abortion restrictions and efforts to strike down abortion restrictions." Nash says the decision made it clear that courts should look seriously at abortion laws — and not just take a legislature’s word that the restrictions are medically necessary.
Yet, organizations that support the abortion restrictions maintain that the laws protect the health of women who are seeking abortions.
“Where we are today, it’s legal to have an abortion in this country and in this state," says Heather Weininger, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life. "So, if a woman is going to go an seek that out, she needs to know that her health, and any consequences after this abortion, her safety is in consideration. And challenging these laws, it simply puts a woman in a dangerous situation.”
Weininger says Wisconsin Right to Life intends to fight to keep the laws on the books. But she says she doesn’t want new Attorney General – and Democrat – Josh Kaul leading the battle. She says she sent Kaul a letter requesting that if he cannot defend the statutes, that he recuse himself.
“I have great concerns if he’s going to defend the state of Wisconsin, when it comes to protective pro-life laws," she says. "Planned Parenthood was one of his earliest and biggest endorsements he got when he was running for office.”
Kaul has said it’s his job is to defend state laws and – through his spokeswoman — has said that DOJ is reviewing the lawsuit. But Weininger says it appears he has a conflict of interest, in which case she wants the Legislature to intervene and find someone else to represent the state in the lawsuit.