News Law and Policy

Settlement Would Spell Out How Doctors Avoid Prosecution For Medication Abortion In Wisconsin

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A legal challenge to the state's restrictions on medication abortion may be close to resolution. But is that a good thing for the women in Wisconsin?

Parties to a lawsuit challenging a Wisconsin law that heavily regulates medication abortions and exposes doctors to felonies should they fail to follow the law appear close to settlement, though representatives caution the case is not yet over.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the state Department of Justice have filed a proposed stipulation that outlines how portions of the law are to be interpreted. Those challenging the law argue the law does not spell out exactly what doctors must to do avoid the criminal and civil penalties under the law making it unconstitutionally vague. The agreement, which still must be approved by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, clarifies that a doctor must be present only when an abortion drug is dispensed, not that a doctor must be present when a patient takes the drug. As written, the law stated that a doctor must be present when a patient is “given” medication with no further guidance. Under the terms of the agreement now a doctor who isn’t present when the drug is taken does not violate the law and risk civil and criminal penalties.

The stipulation also clarifies the steps a doctor must take to comply with the portion of the law that requires doctors screen for ” abortion coercion” and states that a doctor’s determination that a patient is voluntarily consenting to the abortion is governed by a “good faith” standard developed in prior case law. It’s a standard that respects doctors’ judgment and should return at least some of the privacy to the doctor-patient relationship.

The matter now will be set for a status conference where the parties and Judge Crabb can set out the process of adopting and implementing the agreement. While it is possible that the stipulation could be rejected by the court, that’s not likely and the parties are taking no chances. “We believe we are making progress in our lawsuit challenging the vague and ambiguous statutory provisions restricting women’s access to nonsurgical abortion” Stephanie Wilson, Spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin told Rewire. “That said, the case has not been resolved.”

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While its good news to hear doctors and patients will have clear guidance on how to comply with the law, it’s sad that a proposed settlement like this can constitute a legal victory in the battle over choice. Women and providers have a right to access reproductive health care and to practice medicine without conceding to onerous and unnecessary regulations designed only to block them. But with a federal judiciary that in some places is openly hostile to abortion rights, conservative legislators swamping state houses with proposed restriction after restriction, and resources stretched thin, litigators defending abortion rights are running out of choices.

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