In early May, a draft notice disclosed of the United States Supreme Court has suggested it may be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade in the coming weeks. If that happens, a Wisconsin law from the 1800s that is still in effect could immediately ban nearly all abortions in the state.
Although state Attorney General Josh Kaul has said the state Department of Justice will not enforce the ban, abortion providers across the state foresee a post-Roe reality and the prospect of shutting down virtually all legal abortion services in the state.
Dr. Allie Linton works at Planned Parenthood’s Water Street Health Center in Milwaukee four days a week, providing both medication and surgical abortions. Since last December’s closing arguments in the Supreme Court, Linton and other Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin staff have been preparing for Roe’s potential end against Wade.
Still, the leaked draft notice took her by surprise.
“I used to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, because that’s how I decompress at home,” she said. “And I got a text from another abortion provider here in Milwaukee saying, ‘Is this real? “”
Now the planning has shifted to hyperdrive, Linton said. They don’t know exactly when the decision will be made, but they expect it to be within the next few weeks. While they wait, they make sure to let patients know that some of the options they currently have may not always be on the table.
“We tell patients that we don’t know how much longer we can have an abortion here, and that includes processing a failed procedure while the pregnancy is ongoing,” she said.
“If I waited too long, it’s too late”
In the clinic’s recovery room – a pastel-painted area with dim lighting and quiet music – Ariel Moulton waits to begin a surgical abortion procedure. Moulton, who is recovering from drug addiction, said her pregnancy was not planned. She was already considering having an abortion long before the draft notice leaked, but hearing the news made her even more sure of her decision.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “It’s almost like I couldn’t even consider not doing it, because if I waited too long it would be too late.“
Moulton is alarmed by the possibility of losing legal access to abortion in the state and wonders what someone in her situation would do if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.
“Nobody wants to have an abortion,” she said, “But sometimes it’s a better option than having another life in this world that just can’t be secured normally… I wouldn’t want to someone else go through this.”
Later that afternoon, another patient who preferred not to use her name waited for surgery in one of the curtained areas of the room. Her feelings were more complicated – even if she chose to terminate her own pregnancy, she does not support abortion.
“If they banned abortion, I wouldn’t really be upset,” she said. “People just need to be more careful.”
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin would immediately cease abortion services, Linton said.
“On the day of the decision, the minute the decision is made, we must suspend all abortion procedures, regardless of the indication,” she said.
In this case, an option for Wisconsin abortion seekers might be to go to a state where it would still be legal, such as Illinois. Planned Parenthood is making plans to help patients do just that, by hiring patient navigators, whose primary duties would be to help people cross the border.
Zoie Hawpetoss currently works as a reproductive health care assistant for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, but will take over as patient navigator in June. It will be largely logistical work, she said, modeled on similar roles in Texas, which spent a restrictive abortion law Last year.
“Getting our hotel connections, figuring out where the flights are and how we can get them to different states,” she said. “And what are the laws in Illinois, and what are the laws in Minnesota, and how can you get financial aid in those states.”
Additionally, many Water Street Clinic staff members are considering obtaining a license to practice in Illinois themselves, including nurse Susan Hedges. The idea is that they could travel to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Waukegan, Illinois, to help manage potential influxes of patients from states like Wisconsin where legal access to abortion could disappear. .
“I’m in the phase of my life where my kids are growing up,” Hedges said. “So I could go there for a whole week and come back, potentially I could rent an apartment there, or I could move there.”
The licensing process is daunting for Hedges and others. They say it is time-consuming and bureaucratic and, for some, will involve tracking down nursing transcripts from decades ago.
For Linton, preparing to practice in Illinois was a little easier. Since training in Chicago, she only had to restore her license from Illinois, a process that took about six weeks.
Doctors at the clinic now prescribe all medical abortion patients an extra dose of misoprostol, the drug that causes the uterus to contract and empty. It’s something they’ve always done for patients beyond nine weeks’ gestation, Linton said, because it’s sometimes needed to help the pregnancy pass and control bleeding. Now she wants to make sure all patients get the extra dose if they need it, in case the decision comes after patients have already started their medical abortions.
Clinic staff also try to schedule procedures around days when they think the decision is most likely to be made.
“We don’t want a patient coming in thinking they’re going to get health care that day and then we have to tell them, ‘No, based on a decision that’s just been made, we have to deny you’.” Linton said.
Planned Parenthood made it clear that no staff member would lose their jobs if abortion was banned in the state, but operations at the Water Street clinic would be very different. Naomi Jackson is the director of the center and takes care of a number of things, including planning. As she worked out the schedules for the next few weeks, she said she felt like she was preparing to close the doors.
“We won’t lose our jobs at Planned Parenthood, but we will lose our passion for what we come here to do every day,” she said.
For now, staff at the Water Street clinic are in a state of uncertainty, trying to see as many patients as possible before the decision is made. Still, Linton said no amount of planning can prepare for the changes that may be on the horizon.
“I’m terrified of what this looks like for each of my patients, each of my staff,” she said. “It’s going to be a really tough day.”