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New Wisconsin Law Is Latest Move by States To Restrict Abortions

Ann Olson fast forwards through a 24-hour video of the abortion-clinic entrance, hoping to identify the individual who, under cover of darkness, glued shut the clinic's front door. She believes the culprit is one of the anti-abortion protesters who routinely picket the clinic on Milwaukee's east side.

These days, though, protesters' tactics are just one reason that the door to abortion access may be closing in Wisconsin. A new law, the most restrictive in the nation, is the latest effort by states to limit the circumstances under which women can obtain abortions.

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Known for its liberal social traditions, Wisconsin has not been immune to the conservative shift in the country. With the state legislature and the governor's office in Republican hands for the first time in two decades, anti-abortion activists' succeeded in their long crusade for abortion restrictions.

The new Wisconsin measure requires women seeking abortions to meet with a doctor at least two times, receive verbal and written counseling, and wait 24 hours before proceeding.

In recent years, other states have enacted similar laws. Eighteen states, for example, have waiting periods similar to Wisconsin's (but only 11 enforce it). But one Wisconsin provision - mandatory distribution of an informational booklet - sets the state's law apart.

"Wisconsin has gone one step beyond other states in its informational requirements," says Dara Klassel, director of legal affairs at the New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Her group joined Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and two Wisconsin physicians to challenge the new law a few days after it was passed on April 30.

A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the state from enforcing the new law, and the US District Court will hold a hearing June 17 on whether enforcement of the law should be blocked. One of the constitutional issues to be addressed is whether the law places an undue burden on a woman's right to privacy.

"I don't know who makes me more angry," says Ms. Olson, who manages the Affiliated Medical Services abortion clinic. "Prayer people I can forgive more easily. I respect them for what they believe. But the legislature just follows political trends."

"Our ultimate goal is to amend the [US] Constitution," says Barbara Lyons, director of the 52,000-member Wisconsin Right to Life group, which joined with the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and other groups to push the legislation. "We want human rights protected from fertilization to natural death."

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Abortion-rights groups here hotly contest all three parts of the statute, but the most contentious is the booklet that depicts the development of a fetus.

Physician Dennis Christensen, who performs abortions in Madison, Wis., and is a plaintiff in the case, says the information in the booklet is already available to any woman who wants it. He objects to the new law's stipulation that women must be handed the booklet, even if they don't want it. "The law is written so that we have to stuff it down our patients' throats."

But Ms. Lyons says the intent of the legislation is "to stop treating women in an assembly-line process where someone profits greatly. What is two or three days in the life of a person where this decision will be with them for the rest of their lives?" she asks.

Nancy Smyth of Americans United for Life, who worked with the coalition to get the legislation passed, says the group also wants women to be aware of the fetus's development.

Besides being handed the booklet, under the new law women would be required to make two trips to an abortion clinic, which would place additional hardships on women, abortion-rights supporters say.

Bernard Smith, the physician at Affiliated Medical Services who performs about 60 abortions a week, says forcing a woman to make two trips only will make it harder on her.

"They want me to get discouraged and not provide the service, but that's not going to happen," he says.

But every time he enters the clinic, he contends with harassment from protesters. Matt Trewhella, who heads a group of 10 called Missionaries to the Preborn, says members work Milwaukee's four abortion clinics. "There were eight [clinics] when we started in 1990," he says. "Now there are only four." He says he has mixed feelings about Wisconsin's new law. "I think it's good because it will save some babies' lives. The down side is we're regulating baby murder."

Back at the clinic, Ann Olson wasn't able to identify the person who glued shut the front door. "They're smart. The person kept his head down, wore a sweatshirt with a hood."

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