Abortion Clinic Limits Tested in Wisconsin, Alabama

Wisconsin and Alabama laws requiring abortion clinic doctors obtain hospital-admitting privileges have landed before two federal judges, as challenges to state efforts to regulate the procedure make their way through courts.

Attorneys for Milwaukee clinic operator Affiliated Medical Services argued the Wisconsin law will cause the facility to close because of burdens it faces in complying with the requirements. Proponents say the laws protect women’s health while abortion-rights advocates contend they are thinly veiled attempts to restrict access to a legally protected option.

The trial in Madison federal court comes a week after the start of a separate challenge to an Alabama law in a U.S. court in Montgomery. Similar measures have been challenged in North Dakota, Mississippi and Texas. While a federal judge in Austin last year struck down that state’s affiliation law, an appeals court overturned the decision in March, allowing the measure to be enforced. Some clinics closed as a result.

In North Dakota, a lawsuit filed by the state’s only abortion clinic was ended after doctors there obtained admitting privileges. And in Mississippi, a law that could shutter that state’s only remaining abortion clinic, located in Jackson, was put on hold last year as a federal appeals court considers the case.

Wisconsin Case

In the Wisconsin case, U.S. District Judge William Conley stayed implementation of the law last year, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court in Chicago, while the case proceeds.

Clinic director Wendy Ashlock today told Conley, who is presiding over the case without a jury, that she has spent 60 to 100 hours helping Bernard Smith, who performs most of the abortions at the facility, obtain the required affiliation.

“It was very difficult to work with them,” Ashlock said of two hospitals with whom Smith sought to associate. “I would not get phone calls when I left messages.”

She also told Conley of threats she received, including one instance in which a box was left behind her car with the word “boom” written inside.

AMS performs more than 2,100 abortions annually. Complications occur in fewer than 2 percent of them, Ashlock said. AMS also said that it is the only clinic in the state that provides abortions after the 19th week.

State Counters

The state has countered AMS’s claims, arguing that abortion clinic doctors at other Wisconsin clinics have been able to get admitting privileges.

Planned Parenthood of the Southeast Inc. filed the Alabama case last year contending the affiliation law there would force clinics in the state’s three biggest cities to close as doctors would be unable to obtain admitting privileges from local hospitals due to residency requirements and the religious associations of some of those institutions.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the case to trial in a March ruling.

“The evidence will show that abortion, like any other medical procedure, can be risky to the patients who request it,” attorneys for Alabama said in a May 13 court filing. Like their Wisconsin counterparts, the state’s lawyers framed the issue as one of patient safety and said it would not unduly weigh on women’s rights.

Witness Testimony

The second Wisconsin trial witness, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin Inc. medical director Kathleen King, who is also an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, described the future of legal abortion in the state if the law is upheld and AMS is forced to close.

Milwaukee’s Planned Parenthood clinic, situated about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the Affiliated Medical facility, couldn’t handle the additional caseload, King said, increasing waiting times from the current three to four weeks to as long as 10 weeks.

She also told Conley of difficulties in recruiting new doctors.

“You’re going to be the target of harassment,” King said. “I have been verbally harassed. I have had protesters at my house. They’ve gone door-to-door in my neighborhood saying, ‘We are here because that baby killer, Dr. King, lives in your neighborhood.’”

The Wisconsin case is Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin Inc. v. Van Hollen, 13-cv-00465, U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin (Madison). The Alabama case is Planned Parenthood Southeast Inc. v. Strange, 13-cv-405, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Alabama (Montgomery).