“[At] age 18, I wasn’t ready to become a mother,” a now equity partner at a prominent firm wrote. “I wasn’t ready to follow in the footsteps of my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother — all of whom became pregnant before the age of 18, and none of whom graduated from high school.”
She had penned her abortion story as part of an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was included in court preparations to hear June Medical Services v. Gee, a landmark case reviewing a Louisiana law that requires doctors performing an abortion to have admitting privileges at a state-approved hospital within 30 miles of their clinic.
“It’s been one month since I had my abortion,” she wrote. “And here I am at 2 a.m., looking for some way to relieve my feelings of grief and regret. I’ve never been so disappointed and ashamed of myself. I robbed myself of what would have been the greatest gift of my life, and I continue to pay the price every day.”
As the issue makes its way through state legislative branches and reaches the nation’s highest court, the debate surrounding it has received new vigor. Citizens have made their stances clear, whether by engaging in political activism or simply making how they feel known on social media, and the topic sizzles across the country.
Proceeding with Caution
In Wisconsin, abortion laws involve some restriction. According to Affiliated Medical Services, a Wisconsin women’s clinic, state law dictates a woman must visit with a counselor and physician before she can proceed with an abortion and prohibits abortion after 21 weeks.
During the visit, physicians conduct health exams, verify the pregnancy and measure how far along it is. But according to the Department of Health Services’ “A Woman’s Right to Know” document, law requires a woman receive “printed materials.”
These include descriptions and imagery of fetal development every two weeks during pregnancy, a statement on fetal pain, potential harmful emotional effects following abortion and services that might provide assistance throughout pregnancy, delivery and raising a child.
The materials also include information on the medical risks of pregnancy and childbirth.
A woman seeking abortion must also sign an Abortion Information Provision Certification Form issued by the state. According to DHS, signing it means you agree your doctor has discussed medical risks associated with the chosen abortion procedure, probable age of the embryo or fetus at the time the abortion is scheduled and eligibility for medical coverage of prenatal and newborn care.
The document also noted a doctor must discuss medical risks if a woman decides to carry pregnancy to term.
Following that, if a woman decides to have an abortion, she must return to the clinic no sooner than 24 hours after the initial meeting for the procedure. This means to receive an abortion, a woman must make two trips to the clinic.
Data published by DHS stated there were 5,640 induced abortions in 2017, the most recent year for which data has been released. This was a 3% increase from 2016. But there was a notable downwards trend: in 1987, the number of abortions in the state was 17,318. This is despite an increase in state population by almost one million people from 1987 to 2017, according to MacroTrends.
In 2017, women aged 20 to 24 also accounted for 30% of reported induced abortions, the largest proportion of any age group.
A Battleground State
As Wisconsin’s reported abortion rates have decreased over time, activism has flourished. This has been notable in the cropping up of organizations furthering their goals in Wisconsin.
Mel Barnes, Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said PPWI has provided care to nearly 60,000 people at their 24 health centers in Wisconsin. Barnes said PPWI “believes that people should be able to make their own health care decisions without interference by politicians.”
Barnes noted her opinion on Wisconsin law.
“Wisconsin has medically unnecessary laws that restrict the ability for people to access the care they need,” Barnes said.
Barnes also said PPWI is challenging some of those restrictions in an ongoing lawsuit.
Kristen Nupson, Legislative Director at Wisconsin Right to Life, was more positive, however.
“I’m really proud of the work that we have done in Wisconsin,” Nupson said. “We’ve passed things like ultrasound laws, and right-to-know bills, things that really make sure … women are not in emotionally vulnerable positions when they’re making these decisions.”
WRTL, Nupson said, is a pro-life organization that “believes that life is valued from conception until natural death.”
Nupson discussed her Christian faith, citing her religious upbringing as her introduction to the pro-life stance. She said she believes God has “made pretty clear in the Bible that life is valued from conception,” and has become a staunch advocate of “protecting and valuing life” from said conception point.
When discussing opposition, Nupson said she’s seen protesters and heard a lot of narratives about the pro-life movement — ones she finds inaccurate.
“A lot of people say that the pro-life movement is just white men trying to control women’s bodies, but as a woman, I would disagree with that,” Nupson said. “My goal is not to tell people what they can and cannot do, it’s to change hearts and minds.”
Barnes said “the majority of people in Wisconsin and across the country are supportive” of Planned Parenthood, noting one in five women in the U.S. has been a patient there.
While she acknowledged a “small but vocal minority” of people who oppose Planned Parenthood, she said their focus “is always on our patients and making sure that people have access to the health care that they need.”
Planned Parenthood provides a plethora of healthcare services, including abortion services, birth control, cancer screenings and men’s health services. It also provides recommendations and referrals to prenatal care and tips on feeding newborns.
Regarding WRTL, Nupson noted many who oppose the pro-life movement often say it “abandons women” after their pregnancies, and WRTL helps make sure that’s not the case.
“We want to come alongside women and show that they are capable of raising a child … we can help provide tools to make them successful,” Nupson said. “If they still feel like they can’t handle that, there are other options, like adoption.”
WRTL has awarded emergency grants to women in immediate financial crisis to allow them to continue their pregnancies, promoted toll-free helplines and has worked with teenagers and college students in statewide conferences.
Both Barnes and Nupson said the subject is complex, and there will always be people who aren’t sure or disagree with them.
“We know that some people have complicated feelings about abortion, and that’s okay,” Barnes said. “Our job at Planned Parenthood is to make sure that people have the information that they need to make decisions about their own health care. We’re here to support our patients no matter what.”
Nupson added she doesn’t take it to heart.
“I think the biggest thing is to not feel attacked or hurt when other people don’t agree with me — that’s fine,” Nupson said. “But obviously I’m passionate about what I do, and I want people to be educated on this issue.”
Despite differences, they both agreed unequivocally on one thing. Their primary goal is to provide support and assistance to those who needed it.
Biological Bases, Ethical Stances
Nupson cited science as a tool she uses to support her stance.
“Thankfully, here in the pro-life movement, I believe we have science on our side,” Nupson said. “I think the most basic principle on this issue is that in biology, something is considered a life when an egg and a sperm come together.”
Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin, on leave as a Berggruen Fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, noted the ethical debate on abortion can stem from certain biological assumptions, like ones Nupson discussed.
But Charo noted certain discrepancies that allowed for debate on even what some would think was solid ground.
“For some, moral status is ascribed from the moment of fertilization, though in fact there is no such single moment, as it is a process: sperm preparation, sperm-egg recognition and binding, sperm-egg fusion and fusion of sperm and egg pronuclei and activation of the zygote,” Charo said.
Charo noted for some, the fact an egg is fertilized is enough to inform their views.
“For [some] people, any loss of a fertilized egg … is equivalent to the death of a live born child, and the issue is whether the loss was incurred naturally, accidentally or intentionally,” Charo said.
For those people, she said, a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest will not excuse abortion, as it is still intentional killing.
Charo said for other people, the main issue is whether the pregnancy is intentional or not. Despite their general view that abortion is not acceptable, she noted some would permit abortions in the case of rape, where the woman played no consenting role in becoming pregnant.
She said an intentional abortion could sometimes be excused by those who typically oppose it if needed to save the life of a pregnant woman, “but there is wide variation on how liberally or strictly one defines” what a threat to her life is.
Charo said for those who are tolerant of abortion, the issue becomes two-fold. The first issue lies in the belief a pregnant woman is entitled to rights over her own body, therefore entitled to make decisions about her pregnancy.
“[The second issue is] the moral status of the embryo/fetus depends … largely on whether development has progressed to the point that the growing fetus can have any sense of its environment, of pain, or of itself – [the] kind of sentience that would trigger full ‘personhood’ in the philosophical sense,” Charo said.
Nupson noted in her effort to educate people on the subject of abortion, she actively discussed things like when a fetus can feel pain and have a heartbeat — factors she said can help people see fetuses as “having humanity” or personhood.
Charo said it is important to remember “no particular religious view can be adopted into law solely because it is a preferred or dominant religion.” She added there should be a line of reasoning in policy that allows for even those of different religious backgrounds to agree with.
Charo noted her own opinion on the subject as well.
“My view is that rights attach when they can be appreciated,” she said. “Until a growing human fetus has the capacity to appreciate its environment in even a minimal fashion, there is no right to continued development that can outweigh the undisputed right of a pregnant woman to control her own body.”
Kathleen McLoone, a sophomore at UW, agrees with Charo.
“I’m definitely pro-choice,” McLoone said. “I believe that a woman’s body is her choice and what she wants out of her life is more important than a fetus. The fact that people are trying to control that is wrong.”
McLoone, who hails from Stanley, Wisconsin, described her town as very conservative. She says that in part stems from the Christian backgrounds that are common there, and added it’s uncommon to talk about subjects like abortion.
“People are a lot more uncomfortable there, talking about things like that,” McLoone said.
McLoone said in Stanley, her stance is relatively uncommon, but youth were more likely to share it. She added coming to UW “was a breath of fresh air. I felt suffocated sometimes in my own town and have been able to expand here.”
Tom, a sophomore at UW who asked to go by first name only, discussed “leaning pro-choice.” But he also discussed the difficulties of grappling with that — he had been pro-life previously and still tries to balance all the facets of the issue today.
“I was pro-life for a long time growing up,” Tom said, citing his conservative surroundings and private Christian education as influences.
Tom said he’d always had doubts about how exactly to gauge his standing, however.
“I’d always had the thought where I could never truly understand what it’s like to be in a situation where I’d have to make that decision,” Tom said. “I started thinking a lot more about it in high school.”
At his Christian high school, he said he had teachers repeatedly compare the legalization of abortion to the Holocaust. He described rallies where his peers would have signs saying “Protect God’s Children” and go onto the streets.
Tom described how coming to UW helped further his curiosities on the topic.
“As I got exposed to more things, I’d already been questioning this very firm pro-life stance my peers had,” Tom said. “By the time I got to UW, I wasn’t a fish out of water, but it reinforced the questions I had.”
He stressed, however, that it’s a complex topic — one he and many others who hail from similar backgrounds at the UW will likely internally debate for a long time.
Jacob, a junior at the UW who asked to go by first name only, spoke bitterly of reactions to being pro-life on campus.
“There’s people who are pro-life here, but what’s problematic to me is that I feel like we need to be quiet about it,” Jacob said. “I get that this is a really polarizing time, and I’m always down to have conversations. But it always devolves into something where I feel like they’re yelling at me about everything. I’ll yell back, so I’m not innocent here and I’m sure [pro-choice] people feel that way too, but it makes me want to not say anything about it.”
Jacob cited a “want to protect unborn life that can’t defend itself yet” as why he’s pro-life. While he said he didn’t want to infringe on a woman’s right to her own body, he didn’t want to also infringe on what he believes is the “inherent right to life a fetus deserves.”
Jacob added, however, he didn’t think those who are pro-choice are bad people.
“I think we’re all trying to protect somebody or something we care about, and that’s where we should all respect each other,” Jacob said.
Tom agreed, noting that approaching the conversation with respect in mind was key. And, he added, he certainly hadn’t made changes to his stance because people shouted at him.
“I look at the similarities of intentions on every side. They’re motivated by really similar things, and I believe they’re all trying to do the right thing,” Tom said. “You should go into a conversation not thinking about how wrong someone is, but about their underlying motivations. That’s where the common ground is probably going to be.”