When the Dobbs decision came down from the Supreme Court in June of 2022, rolling back the constitutional right to abortion granted by both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey and returning the power to regulate abortions to the states, Wisconsin’s health care landscape relating to pregnancies and abortions was chaotic. A trigger law passed back in 1849, before women could vote, went into effect, and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, as well as other organizations that provide the same care, stopped performing all abortions. Tanya Atkinson, the PPWI President & CEO, said that the penalties for physicians, which include up to six years in prison on felony charges and $10,000 in fines, was significant, and it was “too much to risk without clarity.” Atkinson further explained that there are two paths forward: Legal and legislative. The former has proven a dead end, as conservatives hold a majority in both houses, so the legal option has been the way forward for abortion access in Wisconsin.
Immediate post-Dobbs care
Following the Dobbs ruling, Planned Parenthood pivoted to providing people seeking abortions with navigators to help them access the care in Illinois, where the procedures remained legal, with some staff even driving across the state line. These navigators also were well versed in access across the country: The landscape changed drastically as conservatively controlled states rushed to pass restrictions and bans that had previously been ruled unconstitutional. Atkinson also emphasized that despite stopping abortions within Wisconsin, the health centers stayed open the whole time, so when the organization resumed abortion services in September of 2023, the same teams were mostly already in place, having switched to family planning and vasectomy services. Within 24 hours of announcing they would be resuming services on September 14, all of the appointments were filled, proving that the need remained despite the ban.
Resuming abortion services
Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin announced that they would resume abortion services in Madison and Milwaukee following a ruling by Dane County Judge Dian Schlipper, who allowed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the 1849 law to proceed and ruled that “She did not believe the law in question bans consensual abortions,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The ruling came as a response to a motion to dismiss the lawsuit from Sheboygan District Attorney Joel Urmanski, who argued that the question of legalizing abortion in Wisconsin should fall to the legislature. According to the Journal Sentinel, “Schlipper in her order rejecting Urmanski’s argument said doctors deserve an answer to which abortion-related state law they should follow now that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, putting back into effect laws in Wisconsin that were dormant under the 50-year decision.” The lawsuit, filed by Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Governor Tony Evers shortly after the Dobbs decision came down from the federal Supreme Court, would invalidate the 1849 law in favor of laws passed more recently that restricted, but did not outright ban, abortion in the state.
With 22 health centers around the state, only three provided abortions: Madison, Milwaukee, and Sheboygan. In Sheboygan, staff physician coverage restrictions make it so the center can provide abortion through medication only. “Even though abortion was legal, it wasn’t accessible,” Atkinson said. She continued that she and the organization are committed not only to protecting the right to abortion for everyone but also fighting the restrictions—both on the clinics and on those who are seeking abortions—to expand access to as many people in need as possible.
LGBTQ cultural competence
In a political climate where so many in the queer community are fighting for their right to body autonomy, like trans, intersex, non-binary, and everyone with a uterus, abortion access is a critical need. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin as an organization seeks to expand access to all health care, especially reproductive health care, for those who identify as LGBTQIA, and does not turn anyone away for lack of funds or insurance. “If we think about social inequities that the queer community faces, like poverty, discrimination in housing, and medical care, they are all cumulatively related to health outcomes,” Tanya Atkinson said when asked about how abortion access specifically relates to the queer community in Wisconsin. She continued, saying that her team is trained to be inclusive as human beings, and to provide care across the spectrum,” with particular emphasis on pronouns and body parts, and the ways in which those can differ from person to person.
The resumption of abortions and the lawsuit brought by Kaul and Evers making its way through the legal system, presumably on its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where progressives have a majority after the election of Justice Janet Protasiewicz, is an important step toward the protection of body autonomy in a state where the legislature held hearings for three weeks in a row regarding access to gender-affirming care and sports for trans kids and young adults. While access has temporarily been granted, the future of abortion services remains in limbo, with different sides arguing that different laws should take precedent. The conservatives want to keep the antiquated law and argue that it outlaws all abortions in the state. Progressives say that the 20-week restriction law that was passed by Republican Governor Scott Walker in 2015 should take precedence. Both heavily restrict access for people who need reproductive care in Wisconsin, and even the 20-week ban would create unacceptable barriers for many.
While conservative politicians use arcane bills that restrict or outright ban access to both abortion and gender-affirming care to fire up their extreme rightwing bases, it’s important for the queer community to come together to vigorously oppose all restrictions to body autonomy. All of these bills seek to perpetuate the dangerous idea that there are segments of the population who are beneath others, and that those people should remain quiet and out of sight. By reopening access in Wisconsin to abortion services, as well as continuing to provide access to other medical services, like gender-affirming treatment, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has rebuked these attempts and driven forward the fight for autonomy and agency for all.