Within 24 hours of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin announcing that it would resume providing abortions — more than a year after clinics in the state stopped that care — all the appointment slots for Monday were filled. So were most of the appointments for the rest of the week. “That just clearly underscores what the need is in Wisconsin,” says Tanya Atkinson, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s president and CEO. For her and her staff, it was a relief to once again offer the full spectrum of reproductive health care to Wisconsinites after 15 months of legal limbo, even as anti-abortion protesters showed up outside the clinics attempting to disrupt patients.
Providers in the state had paused offering abortions following the overturn of Roe v. Wade due to an 1849 criminal law that had been widely interpreted as banning the procedure in all cases except to save the life of the pregnant person. The state’s only independent abortion clinic, which had served patients for three decades, closed its doors permanently and relocated to Illinois. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood worked closely with its sister affiliates in other states, according to Atkinson, establishing a patient navigator to help abortion seekers with logistical questions and connect them with resources. The need persisted despite these efforts. “There would be patients that would come in almost in disbelief that they couldn’t access care in Wisconsin,” she said. “Our staff had to walk them through their options and be there for them through the emotion of understanding that they had to go somewhere else, regardless of their circumstances. For some people, those obstacles are just insurmountable.”
But in July, a judge ruled that the 174-year-old measure outlaws feticide — not consensual medical abortions. “There is no such thing as an ‘1849 Abortion Ban’ in Wisconsin,” Dane County Circuit Judge Diane Schlipper wrote in her opinion. The legal challenge still isn’t over, and there’s no injunction blocking local prosecutors from going after abortion providers as they had threatened to do over the past year. But Atkinson says that after the decision, Planned Parenthood decided with its legal team and medical staff that the courts had clarified the law enough that it was safe to resume abortion care at its clinics in Madison and Milwaukee. Atkinson says that the health team at those centers, including doctors and nurses, remained unchanged over the past year, which allowed them to move quickly. The organization is also working to fulfill staffing needs and resume abortion services at its health center in Sheboygan, which offered medication abortion prior to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Dr. Kristin Lyerly, one of the providers who primarily offered services at that location, told the Wisconsin State Journal that she left the state last year to provide abortion care in Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota — states that have seen an influx of patients from Wisconsin. She now plans to return to the state and perform the procedure there once again. “I’m really looking forward to coming back home,” she said. “My kids are at home. My whole family’s there and has been for generations.”
Other barriers to abortion access persist for Wisconsinites, despite Planned Parenthood resuming the service. Atkinson cautions that the judge’s decision on the 1849 law did not do away with the rest of the state’s abortion restrictions, which include a 20-week ban, a 24-hour waiting period, a parental-consent requirement for minors, and a ban on telehealth visits. “There are 72 counties in the state and only two have an abortion provider,” she points out. “These restrictions make it difficult to access care in Wisconsin, especially when we look at people living in rural areas, people who have limited income, communities of color. It just exacerbates health inequities.”
It’s also unclear whether the state Supreme Court will block the 1849 law once the legal challenge reaches it. Republican lawmakers are currently trying to impeach Justice Janet Protasiewicz, who ran a campaign that explicitly supported abortion rights before being elected in April. GOP legislators have also introduced a slate of anti-abortion measures, including a bill that seeks to change “the definition of abortion” by creating exceptions for narrowly defined medical emergencies. The measure would also modify the class of felony that a person would face for providing abortion care outside of these instances, increasing the possible prison sentence from 12.5 years to 15 years.
Even if access to abortion in Wisconsin is not guaranteed given that political climate, Planned Parenthood believes it had a duty to resume care. “We had to make a medical decision, even though all of the political machinations are happening in the background with the legislature, impeachment, and all of those things,” Atkinson says. “The people of Wisconsin couldn’t wait any longer.”
The Cut offers an online tool you can use to search by Zip Code for professional providers, including clinics, hospitals, and independent OB/GYNs, as well as for abortion funds, transportation options, and information for remote resources like receiving the abortion pill by mail. For legal guidance, contact Repro Legal Helpline at 844-868-2812 or the Abortion Defense Network.