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Abortion was never easy to access in rural northern Wisconsin. For some, it’s now out of reach.

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When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, clinics across Wisconsin suspended the practice. But even before the Supreme Court’s announcement, abortion services in northern Wisconsin were extremely limited.

When you look at a map of Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin, you will find clusters near Madison and Milwaukee. There are clinics in Green Bay, Wisconsin Rapids and Eau Claire.

But further north, the map is blank.

Instead, there are two pro-life pregnancy resource centers — one in Wausau, one in Woodruff.

Many hospitals in the area, including Aspirus hospitals, do not perform abortions because most were originally founded on religious grounds. So up until recently, women seeking an abortion in non-life-threatening instances had to travel to southern Wisconsin.

Even then, accessing abortion care was not easy.

“There is a misconception that abortion was easily and readily accessible for anyone who wanted it prior to the Dobbs decision, and that was absolutely not the case in the state of Wisconsin,” says Amy Domeyer, the legislative and vice chair for the Wisconsin section of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “There were many barriers that made it difficult for patients to access abortion care.”

Those barriers include a ban on abortions past 21 weeks, restrictions on consent, and a 24-hour mandatory waiting period between consent and the procedure.

Since the Supreme Court announced its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Wisconsin health care providers have been abiding by a state law from 1849. It restricts all abortions, without exceptions for rape or incest, unless a mother’s life is on the line.

The 1849 law faces legal challenges. But as those travel through the courts, doctors like Domeyer are in limbo, unsure of what care they can legally provide.

“It’s frightening to be threatened with criminal prosecution for providing care,” Domeyer says. “I don’t think any of us are particularly interested in taking that level of risk without any sort of guidance from the government as to which of these laws hold firm.”

In the meantime, pregnant women considering an abortion in northern Wisconsin face limited options.

They can seek an abortion out of state, but that option can be timely and costly, which makes doctors like Domeyer concerned for patients who might turn to home remedies to self-induce an abortion.

“As a health care provider, I don’t want to go back to the days where we’re having scores of women showing up in the ER bleeding and infected because they weren’t able to access these safe and effective (abortion) procedures when they needed them,” she says.

A different option for women with an unintended pregnancy is to seek care at a place like the Hope Life Center — one of the two pro-life pregnancy resource centers in the region.

“Virtually all of these centers are nonprofit. They’re faith-based and they do not charge for any of their services,” says Jack Hoogendyk, the executive director of the Hope Life Center.

The center provides free services like pregnancy and STD testing, education programs for pregnant women, and resources like diapers, baby clothes and strollers. It does not offer abortion services or abortion referrals.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Hope Life Center is preparing to serve more women.

“There will be some women, of course, who are facing a pregnancy diagnosis, who know that they can’t easily obtain an abortion anywhere close by. As it was, the nearest abortion clinics to the Greater Wausau area were in Milwaukee, Madison, the Twin Cities, so it wasn’t that close anyway,” Hoodendyk says. “But now surgical abortions are no longer going to be available anywhere within the state of Wisconsin. Women who are pregnant, knowing that, may be more inclined to call a center like ours looking for answers. And we’ll be ready with those answers.”

Hoogendyk says the center has seen an uptick in donations in recent weeks as donors respond to recent news.

However, like Domeyer and Wisconsin’s OBGYNs, the center is waiting. It’s waiting to see what legislation will stand in Wisconsin, how accessible abortion pills will be and how demand for its services will be affected.

But one thing Hoogendyk knows is certain.

“There is always going to be a need,” he says. “There’s always going to be, mostly young women, who are facing a decision about a pregnancy that they did not expect or perhaps did not want.”

But the choices those women face have changed, even if they were limited to begin with.

Erin Gottsacker joined WXPR in December 2020. As a Morning Edition host and reporter, Erin reports on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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