News Law and Policy

Legal Battle Over Medication Abortion in Wisconsin Drags On

Jessica Mason Pieklo

On Thursday, a state judge heard arguments in a case challenging a 2012 law that severely restricts medication abortion and exposes doctors to felony prosecution for failure to comply.

On Thursday, a Wisconsin state court judge heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin Act 217, the “Coercive and Webcam Abortion Prevention Act.”

Passed in 2012, Act 217 heavily restricts medication abortion in the state and subjects doctors to felonies for failure to comply. The law requires any physician prescribing medication for an abortion to first perform a physical exam on the patient and to be in the room when the drugs are given to the patient. The law also places additional requirements on doctors to determine whether the woman’s consent to the abortion procedure is voluntary or if she is being “coerced” into the procedure.

In December 2012, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin challenged the law in federal court, arguing it was unconstitutionally vague and so badly drafted compliance was impossible. According to the lawsuit, because the law does not spell out what a physician must do to comply and avoid criminal prosecution, it violates due process protections. In February 2013, attorneys for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and lawyers for the state reached a settlement in the lawsuit that spelled out how the challenged portions of the law are to be interpreted. The agreement 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. That means that doctors may still provide a two-pill abortion procedure and let the patient take the second pill on her own, away from the doctor’s office, rather than return to the office to take the second pill in the presence of the physician. The settlement 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.

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But U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, who was assigned to the case, would not accept the settlement because she said she lacked federal jurisdiction to approve it. With terms of a settlement reached but no way to enforce it, Planned Parenthood withdrew its federal lawsuit and refiled its claim in state court.

In April 2013, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess issued a temporary injunction, which blocked the law from being enforced while the state lawsuit was pending. Planned Parenthood later restored access to nonsurgical abortions in Milwaukee, Madison, and Appleton, saying that under the terms of the temporary injunction the compliance provisions of the law were clear enough to satisfy provider concerns that they could resume providing medication abortions without fear of criminal prosecution.

According to reports, even though the attorneys for the state have agreed to these terms, they are resisting a court order and have asked Judge Niess not to make a ruling in the case. Attorneys for the state argue that the settlement terms are already enforceable, would bind prosecutors in the future, and could be used as a defense by any doctor who is prosecuted in the future. But, attorneys for Planned Parenthood say those assurances are not enough, that a settlement agreement reached in federal court is not binding in a state court action, and a court order clearly laying out the terms is required to protect doctors from possible prosecution.

Judge Niess said he would rule within 90 days. He also has the option of granting himself an additional 90-day extension if he believes he needs more time to rule.

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

News Law and Policy

Wisconsin Can’t Enforce GOP’s Voter ID Law in November

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Republican lawmakers in other states, like Ohio, have turned up almost nothing during lengthy investigations into claims of voter fraud.

A federal judge in Wisconsin on Tuesday ruled that voters unable to comply with the state’s photo ID requirement be allowed to vote in November, striking a blow to conservative efforts to drive down Democratic voter turnout in the state.

Tuesday’s decision, issued by Judge Lynn Adelman, did not strike the law, but instead carved out an exception, ruling that voters who are unable to obtain an ID be permitted to sign an affidavit testifying to that inability and receive a ballot to vote. “Any voter who completes and submits an affidavit shall receive a regular ballot, even if that voter does not show acceptable photo identification,” according to Adelman’s decision. “No person may challenge the sufficiency of the reason given by the voter for failing to obtain ID.”

Conservatives in Wisconsin, including former Republican Party presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker, proposed the measure, arguing it was necessary to prevent voter fraud.

Republican lawmakers in other states, like Ohio, have turned up almost nothing during lengthy investigations into claims of voter fraud.

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“Although most voters in Wisconsin either possess qualifying ID or can easily obtain one, a safety net is needed for those voters who can’t obtain qualifying ID with reasonable effort,” Adelman wrote. “The … affidavit option is a sensible approach that will both prevent the disenfranchisement of some voters during the pendency of this litigation and preserve Wisconsin’s interests in protecting the integrity of its elections.”

Adelman declined to apply the photo ID exception to the state’s August primary, ruling state officials would not have enough time to prepare for it.

The fight over Wisconsin’s voter ID law goes back to 2011, when attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sued, arguing the law violated both the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Adelman initially blocked the law, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back to Adelman for another look. That left the requirement in place for Wisconsin’s presidential primary in April.

Tuesday’s ruling means those who were unable to comply with the photo ID requirement can still cast a ballot in the November 8 presidential election.