MADISON, Wis. – A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday evening to block enforcement of a new Wisconsin law that bans doctors who lack admitting privileges at nearby hospitals from performing abortions.
U.S. District Judge William Conley granted the order following a hearing in a lawsuit filed Friday by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and Affiliated Medical Services. It alleged the requirement would unconstitutionally restrict the availability of abortions in the state, violates the U.S. Constitution's due process guarantee and unconstitutionally treats doctors who perform abortions differently from those who perform other procedures.
The restraining order will remain in place pending a fuller hearing July 17. In his ruling, Conley said "there is a troubling lack of justification for the hospital admitting privileges requirement." He said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states must prove that restrictions on abortion rights must be reasonably aimed at preserving the mother's health.
"Moreover, the record to date strongly supports a finding that no medical purpose is served by this requirement," he said.
The bill was introduced in the Legislature on June 4, passed nine days later and signed into law Friday by Gov. Scott Walker. It took effect Monday. The law also requires women to obtain an ultrasound before getting an abortion, but that provision is not being challenged.
"This ruling is a step in the right direction for the women of Wisconsin who can now continue to make their own personal, private health care decisions," Terry Huyck, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said in a statement. "We are confident that the Court will ultimately recognize if ACT 37 is not blocked, it would unconstitutionally restrict the ability of Wisconsin women, including victims of rape and incest and women who are in need of an abortion to preserve their health, to access safe and legal abortions. "
Attorneys told Conley that if the law wasn't put on hold, dozens of women with abortions scheduled in the coming week would have had to cancel their appointments. Those appointments are at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Appleton and the Affiliated Medical Services clinic in Milwaukee, where doctors performing abortions do not have admitting privileges to hospitals within 30 miles as the new law requires, attorneys said.
Both of those clinics would close under the law, meaning abortions would not be available in Wisconsin north of Madison. After the 19th week of pregnancy, abortions would not be available anywhere in the state, the lawsuit says.
Doctors performing abortions at two other clinics in Madison and Milwaukee meet the hospital privileges requirement, Planned Parenthood attorney Lester Pines told Conley.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Dan Brueck declined comment following the hearing.
Supporters of the law argue ultrasounds will help the woman bond with the fetus and convince her to save it. The admitting privileges requirement ensures a woman who suffers an abortion-related complication has an advocate who can explain what happened when she reaches a hospital, supporters say.
But opponents contend the true goal was to make it more difficult to obtain abortions in Wisconsin.
Assistant Attorney General Dan Lennington defended the admission requirement, saying doctors who perform abortions at a clinic are the best ones to treat women after they've been admitted to the hospital if a problem arises.
Pines countered that in an emergency, the standard practice would be for a specialist -- not the doctor performing the abortion -- to treat the patient. Admitting privileges for an outpatient doctor aren't required for a patient to get the highest level care in a hospital, Pines said.
Lennington said it would not be a burden for women in northern Wisconsin who would have gone to Appleton to instead drive farther to have the procedure done in Minneapolis or Milwaukee.
"You haven't driven those roads if you don't think it's a burden," Conley said during the hearing.
In his ruling, Conley wrote that the state is unlikely to meet its burden of proof that admission privileges requirement will improve care for patients who experience problems after an abortion. He said the evidence indicates "the current system already handles efficiently the very low percentage of women seeking abortions with serious complications."
Even if the state can meet that burden, the judge said, the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in proving the law erects impermissible obstacles to women seeking abortions.