Originally Published by Stevens Point Journal, May 11, 2022
At a time when abortion is back, front and center in the national debate on reproductive health care, an annual report released this week gives a detailed picture of the prevalence of abortion in Wisconsin.
According to the data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state has seen a steep decline in the rate and number of induced abortions since the late 1980s, which follows in lockstep with the national trend. The decline speaks to both the advancement of contraceptives and the dearth of abortion clinics in the state, according to experts who follow the issue.
“Looking at the period between 2009 and 2017, there was a huge explosion in restrictions on abortion access through state law,” said Amy Williamson, associate director of UW Collaborative for Reproductive Equity. “We lost 40% of our state’s abortion clinics.”
Four clinics provide abortions in Wisconsin. They are in Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Madison. Three are operated by Planned Parenthood and one by Affiliated Medical Services.
The Wisconsin report came after a national news organization published a leaked U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade, a decision that could make induced abortion a state-based issue no longer protected by federal law. Without Roe v. Wade, Wisconsin laws prohibit all abortions, including those sought by survivors of rape and incest, unless it is necessary to save the life or protect the health of the pregnant person.
Elizabeth Goodsitt, a state Department of Health Services spokesperson, said its annual report publishing Tuesday — one day after the national news broke — was “mostly a coincidence,” but confirmed it was released a few days earlier than scheduled, given the leak.
“The report has been in the final review process for the past two weeks and we were planning to publish it this week,” Goodsitt told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Wednesday. “But with the national news coming out the way it did, we expedited review to get it published yesterday so the information was available.”
Since its reporting on induced abortions began in 1987, state data shows a more than 60% decline in abortion services across Wisconsin. The highest number of induced abortions was recorded in 1988 at 17,986, and the number had dropped to 6,430 in 2020.
The number of abortions for every 100 live births is down by half, and the number of abortions for every 1,000 Wisconsin women is down by nearly two-thirds.
Anti-abortion advocates argue that, so long as that number isn’t zero, the fight to push for the state’s full prohibition of abortion will continue.
That belief is enshrined in Wisconsin Right to Life’s mission statement, which states that “each human life is inherently valuable from fertilization to natural death.”
“We are encouraged that the numbers have dropped, but our mission has always been twofold; to make abortion illegal, but also unthinkable,” said Gracie Skogman, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Right to Life.
Mike Murray, the vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said the state’s abortion policies are already “incredibly regulated.” He cites the 24-hour wait period between consultation and procedure and the subsequent cost of the procedure, travel, time off from work and, potentially, getting child care set up.
He said a ban on abortion will only put a mirror to the staggering health disparities already faced by people of color, low-income people and those living in rural parts of Wisconsin.
“Any type of restriction on access to health care, including restrictions on access to abortion care, will disproportionately impact populations that are experiencing greater health disparities,” Murray said. “They will just be magnified and exacerbated by any additional restrictions or barriers that are based upon that already existing infrastructure.”
According to the report, more than half of abortion recipients in Wisconsin in 2020 were white, more than one-third were Black and over one-tenth were Hispanic. People in the 20-24 age bracket accounted for 30% of abortions, which was the largest proportion of abortion seekers. Minors, those younger than 18, represented about 3% of all abortions in 2020.
Wisconsin law requires mandatory parental consent for minors, excluding those who have been emancipated, meaning they have been divorced from their parents, are married or enlisted in the U.S. military.
In the last three years, abortion recipients have come from every county in the state except two — St. Croix and Douglas — which are so close to Minnesota that abortion seekers would likely have crossed the border rather than drive the 300 to 400 miles to the nearest Wisconsin-based abortion clinic.
Those long distances speak to the more pervasive problems of health care access, rather than restrictions leading to childbirth over termination, said Williamson of UW Collaborative for Reproductive Equity. People who are denied abortion, she said, are more likely to stay in abusive relationships and less likely to achieve their life goals, which includes aspirations such as post-secondary education.
“Abortion is health care. A ban prevents people from having any autonomy in the process of family planning,” Williamson said.
According to Skogman, Wisconsin Right to Life has developed resources over the years for pregnant people in critical life conditions, including for young people and those medically disenfranchised, offering emergency housing grants and access to pregnancy resource centers.
“When we say in the pro-life movement that we are pro-life, pro-babies, pro-women,” Skogman said, “we truly are and we stand by those words and we want to continue that effort.”