Wisconsin Judge Clarifies Medication Abortion Restrictions


On Thursday, a Dane County state court judge ruled that Wisconsin doctors do not have to be present when a woman takes drugs prescribed to her for a medical abortion.

Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess issued the ruling, clarifying requirements under Wisconsin’s 2012 “Coercive and Webcam Abortion Prevention Act,” which sought to heavily restrict the use of RU-486 and exposed providers to criminal liability 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 filed suit against the attorney general and other officials responsible for enforcing the law, arguing it was unconstitutionally vague and ambiguous because it did not clearly spell out what a doctor must do in order to satisfy all components of the bill. The law was first challenged in federal court, where the parties reached an agreement on how to interpret the challenged portions of the law. But a federal judge rejected the settlement, saying the court lacked the jurisdiction to approve the terms. That left Planned Parenthood to refile its claims in state court, and in April 2013 Judge Niess issued a temporary injunction blocking the law from being enforced while the state lawsuit was pending.

Judge Niess’ ruling clarified that under the law 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. 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 a physician. As written, the law stated that a doctor must be present when a patient is “given” medication, with no further guidance.

“This is a victory for women and their ability to decide which medical procedure is best for their own health and circumstances,” Teri Huyck, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said in a statement. “The decision recognizes that medical professionals should be trusted to determine the safest and best medical care for their patients. As a leading provider of women’s health care in Wisconsin for almost 80 years, we will continue to provide our patients with the safe and legal health care services they need and deserve.”

The court victory comes as advocates fight other abortion restrictions as well as help patients navigate those already in place. Patients in Wisconsin who need abortions still must meet the requirements of a state-mandated examination and counseling session with a physician and wait the state-mandated 24-hours after that session before having the procedure. Meanwhile, a ruling in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a requirement that doctors performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals is expected any day now.

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