A Big Reproductive Rights Win For Wisconsin

A federal judge in Wisconsin delivered yet another pivotal reproductive rights win late on Friday, striking down an admitting privileges law that blocked abortion access in the Badger State. The law, which requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local area hospital, has become a popular anti-abortion provision in recent years, though its constitutionality has been repeatedly tested in federal courts.

Passed in June 2013, SB 206 required doctors at any facility providing abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within a 30-mile radius. The law also included an ultrasound requirement, mandating doctors to show each patient an image of the fetus. However, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and Affiliated Medical Services, an abortion clinic in Milwaukee, did not challenge the ultrasound requirement in court.

In his ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge William Conley found that Wisconsin's admitting privileges law had little to do with protecting women's health and was more about state legislators circumventing a person's constitutional right to an abortion. "The only reasonable conclusion is that the legislation was motivated by an improper purpose, namely to restrict the availability of abortion services in Wisconsin," Conley wrote in his decision.

The judge added:

[T]he court now finds that the marginal benefit to women’s health of requiring hospital admitting privileges, if any, is substantially outweighed by the burden this requirement will have on women’s health outcomes due to restricted access to abortions in Wisconsin. While the court agrees with the State that sometimes it is necessary to reduce access to insure safety, this is decidedly not one of those instances.

Conley was not convinced by the state's argument, which hinged on the rare but possible complications from abortion procedures. The judge notes in his decision that the defendants acknowledge during the trial that Wisconsin has never applied admitting privileges to other outpatient procedures, including ones that are significantly more dangerous than first- and second-trimester abortions.

Conley also delved into the flawed and unsupportable reports on abortion complications prepared by the defendants’ medical expert Dr. John Thorp, who often provides anti-abortion testimonies in these sort of cases. During the trial, Conley writes how Thorp "failed to cite any support" in his claim that the complication rate from abortion is up to 10 percent.

"In light of the deep flaws in his analysis and his testimony, which often came off more as advocacy then expert opinion, the court finds little to credit in Dr. Thorp’s opinions of the relative risks of abortions to child birth or comparable invasive procedures," Conley concluded.

The judge also cited recent abortion complication rates reported by Wisconsin’s 2012 Reported Induced Abortions figures. In 2012, there were just 13 reported complications out of a total of 6,927 abortions — a complication rate of 0.19 percent. The rate was relatively unchanged in 2013.

“The justifications states offer for these laws, which are opposed by major medical groups like the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, are a sham," Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, added Friday in a statement.

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Because the admitting privileges had little benefit to women's health, and also sought to single out and marginalize abortion doctors who are performing less invasive and risky procedures than their fellow medical colleagues, Conley placed a permanent injunction on the law. "[T]he Act’s purpose was to prevent women from accessing abortion for a variety reasons," he concluded.

This decision is a huge victory for reproductive rights advocates in the state, who feared that Wisconsin would have to lose its largest abortion provider, AMS, if the law was upheld. AMS performed 2,500 abortions in 2013, the vast majority of which were in the first trimester.

Wisconsin has just four abortion clinics in total, three of which are operated by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. While those three Planned Parenthood clinics were able to secure admitting privileges, the two doctors at AMS in Milwaukee were denied by every local hospital.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 67 percent of Wisconsin women live in a county without an abortion provider. Without the admitting privileges law in effect, reproductive rights advocates have said that many Wisconsin women would have been forced to cross state lines for an abortion.

"Let this ruling be a lesson to lawmakers across the country that a woman’s ability to access safe and legal abortion should not depend on where she lives," said Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards.Images: Getty Images (2)