By Samantha McCabe
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court revoked the federal constitutional right to an abortion in June, Wisconsin physicians have operated under a near-total abortion ban from the 1800s. Physicians call the language articulating the ban’s narrow exceptions vague. That makes the question of what they should do in certain situations open to interpretation.
Legal questions surround Wisconsin’s abortion law as well. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul is suing legislative leaders over the 173-year-old ban, hoping state courts will agree with his argument that it conflicts with more recent abortion legislation and shouldn’t be enforced.
Amid the uncertainty, Wisconsin Watch spoke to experts to answer your questions about abortion and reproductive rights in the state.
Still have questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or text MKE to 73224, enter your ZIP code and request to connect with a reporter.
I want to terminate my pregnancy. How can I legally get an abortion?
While Wisconsin clinics have halted elective abortions since the Supreme Court ruling, abortions remain legal in neighboring states, including Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Some states have attempted to ban leaving the state for an abortion, but “Wisconsin has no such law,” said Diane Welsh, who specializes in health law at the Madison-based firm Pines Bach.
In Illinois, abortion remains legal until the fetus reaches “viability,” the time at which an attending physician determines there is a “significant likelihood of a fetus’ sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.” That usually happens around 24 weeks of pregnancy — determined by counting from the first day of the pregnant person’s last period. But viability can differ between pregnancies.
Illinois clinics are not legally required to contact a parent or legal guardian for those under 18. Illinois also does not require patients to endure a waiting period, view an ultrasound or receive information from the state, as some other states do.
In Minnesota, the Supreme Court recognizes a state constitutional right to abortion, and in July, a judge struck down certain restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that parents or a legal guardian of a minor seeking an abortion be notified.
Like in Illinois, abortion in Minnesota is legal until viability.
Abortion access in Iowa remains legal, although that could change. Iowa currently bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That’s 22 weeks after the last menstrual period. This deadline has exceptions to protect the health of a pregnant person or save the person’s life.
Iowa requires people seeking an abortion to sit through a counseling session and wait at least a day before the procedure. The state requires parental or guardian notification for patients aged 17 years or younger.
Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin can help patients navigate out-of-state appointments. That includes providing information and financial support, said Mike Murray, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.
The organization also offers pre- and post-abortion care. For instance, if you don’t know the exact date of your last menstrual period, you can schedule a free “pregnancy assessment and ultrasound dating” at clinics in Madison, Milwaukee and Sheboygan.
AbortionFinder.org offers a full list of abortion providers.
If you need help with funding, here are a few of your options:
• National Network of Abortion Funds
• Midwest Access Coalition
• Freedom Fund, which helps residents of central and northern Wisconsin
If I return to Wisconsin following an out-of-state abortion and experience complications, can I get in trouble while going for help at the ER? What should I tell them?
Wisconsin’s abortion ban does not include criminal penalties for a pregnant person obtaining an abortion, so you cannot face prosecution for obtaining an abortion in or outside the state. Instead, Wisconsin’s law leaves providers of in-state abortions open to prosecution.
“From a purely medical standpoint, I would want my patient to be able to be entirely honest so I could offer her the best possible management for her concerns in the most holistic manner, addressing not only her physical concerns but also emotional, social, and whatever else these challenging situations involve,” said Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a Green Bay obstetrician and gynecologist.
Additionally, federal privacy law prohibits health care providers from disclosing information about a patient’s post-abortion care, Welsh said.
Still, patients could become involved in an investigation of an abortion provider, which could include collection of evidence like cell phones, Lyerly said.
Patients should be careful about sharing information, said Lyerly, who recommends that recipients of abortion care outside of Wisconsin call the clinic where they received care to seek guidance. Many clinics offer 24-hour hotlines for issues that may arise. If the complications worsen quickly, though, call 911 or show up to the nearest emergency room.
I’m pregnant and have a life-threatening condition. What should I do?
The lone exception in Wisconsin’s abortion ban is for life-saving “therapeutic abortions.” The law says the procedure must be deemed necessary “or is advised by 2 other physicians as necessary, to save the life of the mother.” There are myriad circumstances in which an abortion might be necessary to prevent disease or death, OB-GYNs say.
Professional associations, health systems and hospitals — even physicians themselves — are developing policies to guide pregnancy-related care, as Wisconsin Watch recently reported. But whatever advice they provide will not be binding — nor universally applicable. The circumstances under which a person will receive an abortion in Wisconsin will ultimately depend on the health system or hospital — and, when it comes down to it, individual doctors.
That means medical interventions during a pregnancy could vary widely. The uncertainty may cause delays in intervention, especially in rural areas.
If you have a life-threatening condition and you’re pregnant, immediately seek a doctor’s guidance.
Patients who feel that a physician or health system isn’t promptly addressing their needs should “seek a second opinion, from another provider — including a provider in a neighboring state,” Welsh said.
Can I still buy emergency contraception like the morning-after pill?
Yes. Emergency contraception — often called the morning-after pill — remains legal and available for purchase in Wisconsin. The most well-known brand is called Plan B, but Aftera, Take Action, and My Way are all available without a prescription. Emergency contraception does not function as an abortion — it works by preventing or delaying ovulation to prevent fertilization within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Planned Parenthood offers emergency prescription medication to walk-ins during their business hours. That requires a brief visit with a health care provider on site. Wisconsin pharmacies continue to provide emergency contraception, although some limit how many one person may buy at once. Health care providers advise against stockpiling them anyway, since they expire after about a year. The pill typically costs $40-$50.
Some emergency contraception pills are less effective for people weighing more than 165 pounds, research shows. Planned Parenthood typically of fers a version called Ella, which remains effective for people weighing up to 195 pounds.
Should I be concerned about my data privacy when searching for or seeking abortion?
Yes. Almost immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some people who use period-tracking apps like Clue and Flo began deleting them, fearful that their data could be used against them.
The Federal Trade Commission has warned tech companies against misusing data from those seeking reproductive health care following an executive order from President Joe Biden. Congress is examining additional protections, but experts still recommend caution.
You should be concerned about data privacy in general, especially when seeking an abortion, said Dorothea Salo, a professor who specializes in information security and privacy at the Information School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Be especially wary of most commercial search engines, she said.
“We know they collect and retain search data, including search queries; we know they associate that data with individual searchers; we know they share, aggregate and sell it all over creation; we know that law enforcement agencies access it,” said Salo, who uses DuckDuckGo.
As far as browsers go, Brave is more privacy-centered than Google Chrome.
Additionally, federal law allows internet providers to analyze, share and sell data on individual customers’ internet use habits. Even VPNs — virtual private networks — are not guaranteed to protect your data, Salo cautioned.
If this sounds overwhelming, Salo recommends starting with a step-by-step digital security guide, like this one from the Digital Defense Fund.
Can I legally help my friend travel across state lines to get an abortion?
Yes. Just as traveling across state lines for an abortion remains legal in Wisconsin, so does helping someone do so.
Can I legally get abortion pills in the mail?
No. Wisconsinites must travel to another state to legally receive abortion pills in the mail.
Wisconsin law bars anyone other than a physician to administer abortion medication, and only after they perform a physical examination and share certain information. While the law doesn’t make recipients of mailed abortion pills subject to criminal prosecution, the person shipping the pills could face charges, Welsh said.
One legal workaround: picking up pills in another state. Certain Planned Parenthood locations outside of Wisconsin offer telehealth visits for the abortion pill. The closest is in Illinois. Accessing the abortion pill after your telehealth visit would require picking up a prescription while visiting that state or having them mailed to an address inside of that state.
There’s a pregnancy clinic in my neighborhood. Will they help me?
Pregnancy clinics, also known as “crisis pregnancy centers” or CPCs, typically present themselves as health clinics, but they primarily aim to dissuade pregnant people from accessing abortions — including by spreading misinformation, research shows. Often religiously affiliated, some centers provide pregnancy tests, testing for sexually transmitted infections and ultrasounds, “however, the images are frequently non-diagnostic and often obtained by untrained, unlicensed staff,” according to a review of academic literature on CPCs published by the International Journal of Women’s Health.
“These facilities engage in purposefully manipulative and deceptive practices that spread misinformation on sexual health and abortion,” the review found. “CPCs have also been shown to delay access to medically legitimate prenatal and abortion care, which negatively impacts maternal health.”
CPCs may be located close to reputable abortion clinics and designed like a normal physician’s office. These unregulated centers are not medical establishments, so they are not bound by any privacy laws, and have been shown to collect patients’ personal data.
The Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, a project of two professors at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, tracks 58 known centers in Wisconsin.
Disclosure: Pines Bach provides pro bono legal representation to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, but it did not provide legal services related to or participate in the writing or editing of this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.