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Local News

Wisconsin Will Default to Pre-Civil War Law Without Roe v. Wade

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Parker Wallis

After the leak of Justice Alito’s Supreme Court draft opinion threatening to overturn Roe v. Wade, medical professionals and Wisconsin residents are protesting, terrified of the negative effect this decision would have on privacy-related rights, LGBTQ people, and access to gender-affirming care and reproductive healthcare.

Without Roe v. Wade to protect the right to abortion federally, Wisconsin will have to rely on an abortion ban dating back to 1849, before women could legally vote,hold office or even own a bank account in their name. The nearly two-century-old law prohibits abortion with one exception: when the doctor decides the procedure “is necessary, or is advised by 2 other physicians as necessary, to save the life of the mother.”

Roe v. Wade is the foundation upon which many privacy-related issues hinge, including gender-affirming care and contraception, and Wisconsin residents are fuming knowing their rights may be stripped away.

“It’s going to be non-binary people like myself, and trans people, who are not going to be able to get affirming health care or quality health care,” says Maera Zawacki, 42, of Milwaukee, while at a recent protest. 

Alexis Rangel, a policy counselor at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), has said, “We have to recognize that this decision will impact trans folks. Particularly trans men and nonbinary folks who need access to reproductive healthcare and abortion specifically.”

Doctors are also loudly voicing their concern about this reversal, claiming the 19th-century law makes their job providing lifesaving and quality of life care harder. All at the expense of their patients. 

Dr. Jennifer McIntosh, who practices maternal fetal medicine in Wisconsin, says the vagueness of the law’s exception is frightening. The punishment can range from a multiple-thousand dollar fine to prison time, but stalling the procedure until the patient’s life is threatened can mean serious health complications or the patient dying. 

McIntosh says, “Figuring out, ‘Well, if I do this, does that count as lifesaving? Is it a step further than that? Is it three steps further than that?’ Instead of making the best medical, sound decision-making, you’re changing your decision-making to try and make sure that you’re following the law.”

Some doctors are calling to attention that pre-existing conditions, such as maternal ages over 35, hypertension, heart problems, connective tissue diseases, and dialysis treatment, can make pregnancy high-risk. Dr. Jacquelyn Adams, a maternal fetal medicine specialist in Wisconsin, cites her patients with heart problems as having a 25% chance of going into cardiac arrest during pregnancy, or during or after childbirth.

Other doctors note that safe, easy pregnancies can later develop complications in tandem with other conditions. Dr. Lisa Harris, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, recounts pregnant patients who were diagnosed with cancer, treatment of which is harmful to a fetus. 

“My question is,” Harris said, “is it a 25 to 30% chance of dying? Is that enough threat to someone’s life that under Michigan or Wisconsin law, they’d be able to have an abortion legally? Or is the Legislature imagining, ‘No, it has to be more, 50% or more than 50% or even 100%, always an ICU, imminent risk of dying situation?'”

Dr. Leilah Zahedi-Spung, who practices maternal fetal medicine in Chattanooga, Tennessee, states, “I am very concerned that a lot of women are going to die across the country because people are going to stop and wait before they have confirmation to move forward. I don’t say that judgmentally. I say that from a place of, I would be in fear.”

Many see this draft opinion as one part of a coordinated, decades-long strategy by Republican-led legislatures to whittle reproductive and LGBTQ rights into a sliver of what they are now with many states like Oklahoma, Florida and Tennessee having already implemented incendiary laws of their own. 

“What we really need now is outrage, anger and action for those among our community who are about to see the most destructive attack on our civil rights in a generation,” says Cathryn Oakley, senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. “And we need to fight back by showing up by being in the streets by protesting for ourselves and the LGBTQ-plus community, and in solidarity with other folks who are having critical civil rights protections stripped away.”