CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of rape and sexual assault. If you have been sexually assaulted, or are not sure, there are several ways to get support. View options on campus through University Health Services.
A 45-year-old mother from Minneapolis smiles down at her two young children. She feels content, secure and fortunate — all feelings she knows she wouldn’t have felt if she chose to have her child when she got pregnant at 18.
For the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity and will be referred to as Sally, having a baby at 18 was not an option. She was in an unhealthy relationship with someone she saw no future with and knew she did not want her child to grow up in a dysfunctional environment. The option to have an abortion was available to her, and she gratefully utilized it.
“I wasn’t gonna have a baby at that time, that was clear to me,” Sally said. “It was a relief that I had an option.”
Sally frequently reflects on the meaning of choice. As someone who was adopted, she can see her biological mother’s choice in herself. After dealing with the aftermath of an abortion, she can appreciate the emotional toll of adoption.
In both situations — abortion and adoption — a woman was the one put in the position to make a decision.
“I would always defer to hoping that her body came first and she was able to take action in this life of hers,” Sally said. “She was the person with a life. I think that trumps the idea of somebody else’s life that may or may not come to be in an environment of dysfunction. That could be really traumatizing and doesn’t take into consideration anyone’s wellbeing and mental health in the long term.”
Sally’s experience with choice makes clear for her the importance of a woman’s ability to make her own decision about her own body. As a mother, she wants those choices to be available to her kids, too.
Though, in recent months, the decision that Sally was able to make has been under fire by lawmakers across the U.S.
After the Supreme Court declined to prevent abortion restrictions in states like Texas, some Wisconsin experts and citizens fear the right to choose may be taken off the table. With the legal road ahead unknown for individuals seeking abortions, people are stepping up to reflect upon and defend their stance on reproductive rights — and prepare for whatever comes next.
The Texas Law: Part of a “totalitarian toolkit”
Margarita Perez’s jaw dropped when the Texas Heartbeat Bill passed May 19.
“It was like a kick in the stomach,” said Perez, a Latina gynecology medical assistant at the University of Wisconsin. “That’s how I felt as a female who grew up in Texas.”
Perez worries for her family in Texas. She feels lucky she was able to leave Texas and educate herself about certain issues — an opportunity she believes many of her family members didn’t have.
The Texas law, which bans abortions after six weeks — before some people know they are pregnant — went into place Sept. 1. The Supreme Court did not block the law despite backlash from abortion providers. The law includes no exceptions for rape or incest.
The Supreme Court used the immediacy of the issue as a rationale to outright block it. Traditionally, the Court would decide the constitutionality of the law by waiting for the law to rise up through the appellate courts.
Mike Murray, vice president of government affairs at Planned Parenthood Wisconsin, said pro-choice advocates’ confidence in legislators is waning following the ruling.
“We’re moving into a new chapter of our history around the fight for reproductive rights and freedom, from a time when people who wanted to protect reproductive rights really relied on the court system to do that,” Murray said.
Copycat Heartbeat Bills are now popping up around the U.S. in other Republican-dominated states such as North Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas and Mississippi. Heartbeat Bills are not a new phenomenon. The first one was introduced in Ohio in 2011, and seven more states since then have attempted to ban abortions at six weeks, according to the New York Times.
Executive Director of the Texas Alliance of Life — a pro-life group in Texas — Joe Pojman said in a press release that every day since the law has been in effect has been a tremendous victory for unborn children who would otherwise have lost their lives to abortion.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has also been vocal about his support of the Texas law. Patrick said protecting life was his top priority when he served in the Texas Senate.
Patrick said Texas is a “solidly pro-life state, and the passage and enactment of this legislation reflects my continued commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.”
Jenny Higgins, UW professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the UW Collaborative for Reproductive Equity, said the six-week ban is complicated for several reasons.
“Many people cannot physiologically know they’re pregnant by six weeks, whether that’s because of underlying health conditions or irregular menstrual cycles, or other factors,” Higgins said. “Therefore, the six-week bans are discriminatory against classes of people who can’t recognize pregnancy by six weeks.”
At six weeks, the embryo is one-fourth inch long and has limb buds and tissue that will develop into a spinal cord, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The six-week timeline, in effect, makes the law a near-total ban on abortions in Texas, pro-choice advocates argue.
As someone who had an abortion, Sally feels that the law is dehumanizing.
“The abortion laws are so hyper-focused on the one thing — ending life,” Sally said. “But so much is left out of what the experience is for the female.”
The Texas law also deputizes citizens, allowing them to sue anyone who “aids or abets” in the performance or inducement of an abortion, according to the Associated Press. This deputization of citizens is one element of the law that caused backlash from doctors, because it uses a method of policing that was employed in Texas and other states during the Jim Crow era to enforce racist laws.
UW social scientist Dietram Scheufele, who grew up in Germany, said the use of citizens’ arrests to him is reminiscent of past regimes in the U.S. and Europe that follow a “totalitarian toolkit.”
“This country has seen the really troubling outgrowth of citizen’s arrests, with lynchings in the not-too-distant history,” Scheufele said. “I would argue that [citizens’ arrests are] just gross human rights violations at best. [Citizens’ arrests are] something that this country has in its DNA, but more often than not hasn’t worked out.”
Already, lawsuits have been filed against Texas doctors who performed abortions.
Since Texas implemented the abortion ban, the state has faced an internal battle over the law. A federal judge temporarily blocked the ban Oct. 6, but that was struck down by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Oct. 8. A federal appeals court then rejected the Biden administration’s latest attempt to stop the ban.
Getting to the CORE of the issue
Perez isn’t mentally strong every day, she said. She goes on long bike rides and cries, worried for her family in Texas. Many of her relatives are young Latine people who were already reluctant to seek out resources in fear of having immigration services called on them.
“Coming from a low income, poor, urban background, I want to know what my people are going to do as Latinas,” Perez said.
Like many laws in the U.S., the effects of abortion laws like the Heartbeat Bill are not felt equally throughout the country. People of color and those financially disadvantaged bear the brunt of the consequences of these laws.
Even with the increasing number of closures of Planned Parenthood clinics and other healthcare facilities around the nation, Wisconsin still has many groups at UW and throughout Wisconsin that advocate for abortion rights and conduct research on reproductive health.
Collaborative on Reproductive Equity, known as CORE, is an initiative at UW that supports and shares policy-relevant research on reproductive health, equity and autonomy in Wisconsin and beyond. CORE members conduct research on family planning, legislative processes, population changes, health inequities, access to contraception and more, according to an email statement from CORE Communications Manager Samantha Herndon.
Researchers at CORE have documented that abortion restrictions contribute to maternal mortality, especially among Black women.
The research shows people who are turned away from desired abortion services are more likely to stay in abusive relationships and experience persistent adverse economic consequences. They are also less likely to achieve aspirational life goals and complete postsecondary education compared to people who receive their desired abortion.
Margy Balwierz , a 74-year-old Wisconsinite, wanted to bring her children into the best situation she could offer. She feels thankful that birth control and other reproductive health services were available to her throughout her life so she could provide her children with optimal care and opportunity.
“I always wanted children but wanted to do it perfectly right for them,” Balwierz said. “I wanted them to have the right father and the right, healthy environment so they would thrive and become their own best selves. I can’t imagine bringing a child into the world without everything to their advantage.”
For many, financial stability is one of the factors that influences whether parents decide to bring a child into the world. While financial instability may drive people to seek abortions, on the other hand, it is also an obstacle for those seeking abortions, as some cannot afford them.
Lawmakers in states like Minnesota have made efforts to limit abortion access including attempts from legislators to ban taxpayer funding for abortion. In 2019, taxpayers reimbursed $1.01 million to abortion practitioners for 4,463 abortions.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a pro-life group in Minnesota, said abortion isn’t a service deserving of public funding, but rather an injustice against both unborn children and their mothers, and taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it.
Minnesota State Sen. Gene Dornink said choosing life doesn’t need to be a partisan issue, and he is saddened that Minnesota Democrats have not chosen the bipartisan approach.
“Everything we learned in class and know to be true says life begins at conception,” Sen. Dornink said in a news release. “Yet, bizarrely enough, we have almost unrestricted abortions in Minnesota, despite our laws protecting the unborn. This is a clear double standard.”
Minnesota has seen closures of Planned Parenthood clinics in recent years, specifically during the Trump era, despite backlash from local politicians like Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Gov. Tim Walz.
Higgins said abortion clinic closures due to the restrictive environment have led to lower abortion rates. One of the biggest obstacles in the way of people seeking abortions is the cost, which includes the cost of transportation, childcare and missing work, she said.
Researchers and other reproductive health professionals are guiding those who want to help abortion-seeking people to donate to local and national funds designed to provide financial assistance to those getting the procedure.
The National Network of Abortion Funds provides information about local abortion funds and clinics. There are three abortion funds in Wisconsin — the Women’s Medical Fund, the Options Fund and the Freedom Fund.
Higgins said restrictions on healthcare funding further limit those who are not able to expediently raise money to pay for the procedure.
“In states like Texas and Wisconsin, there are funding restrictions on abortion, meaning that your healthcare might provide for pregnancy and birth-related costs, but not abortion termination costs, so people have to raise money out of pocket,” Higgins said. “For someone who doesn’t have $400 in their savings account, you can’t generate the funds you need for an abortion very quickly.”
Planned Parenthood Wisconsin is another service that aims to provide assistance for those who need it. Murray said services provided by Planned Parenthood are still available to those who need them despite restrictions.
“I think sometimes people read about all these restrictions going [on in] other states and the arguments that are going on nationally, and people get concerned about whether that type of care is still available in Wisconsin,” Murray said.
Throwback to 1849
A prominent and divisive topic in the conversation around abortion rights is Roe v. Wade, the most well-known and influential abortion rights case. Attempts to overturn the case have continued since the ruling in 1973.
Jane Roe, a pseudonym for the plaintiff, filed a lawsuit in 1970 against the district attorney of Dallas County Henry Wade, responding to a restrictive Texas abortion law that outlawed abortion except to save a woman’s life. The case went to the Supreme Court and passed in a 7-2 majority. The powerful case found that the 14th amendment’s view of personal liberty included a person’s right to choose an abortion.
Higgins said she expects Roe v. Wade to be overturned in the near future. In the case that the precedent is overturned, Higgins said abortion would become a state issue since each state would be affected differently if Roe is overturned, depending on protections in place.
“A state like California has implemented protective abortion laws that will retain abortions legality regardless of Roe’s status, but places like Wisconsin will revert to laws that criminalize abortion,” Higgins said. “So, overturning Roe won’t immediately outlaw abortion in the whole country. It will only immediately outlaw abortion in those states like ours that have a pre-Roe law that outlaws it.”
Wisconsin, for example, has no protective abortion laws. Murray said if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Wisconsin would revert to an 1849 law that criminalized abortion.
Perez, who is also a University Health Services employee, tries to stay positive about the state of affairs. She doesn’t see a threat to UHS yet and encourages students to continue to utilize the resources available to them. She is, however, nervous about unexpected laws that might pop up.
“I don’t see any threat yet, and I’m hoping I don’t, but you know you can always get slapped in the face with the politics that go on,” Perez said. “So that’s always my main fear right now.”
Groups around Wisconsin have unsuccessfully tried to overturn the 1849 Wisconsin law, which includes no exceptions of rape or incest, according to WPR. As someone with past experience with rape and abuse, Sally finds this extremely frustrating.
Sally said the experience of getting the abortion was so emotionally taxing for her that she could not follow through with it the first time. Specifically, the pre-op questions were triggering because they asked about past sexual experiences she had never talked about before.
“What got really complicated and overly emotional for me was the experience of talking about my sexuality and my sexual history with someone because I just hadn’t done that,” Sally said. “I hadn’t ever really processed or talked to anybody.”
Regarding the absence of protection for victims of rape and assault, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott said he would “eliminate all rapists from the streets” without offering suggestions on how to do so.
A state divided
Balwierz, who began attending marches in 1965 and went to the 2017 Women’s March in D.C., said she has seen the same pattern of political manipulation surrounding abortion rights throughout her whole life. She feels especially disheartened by the current political state.
“Women should be allowed to make the best choices for their womb by assessing their own needs and health,” Balwierz said. “Why would that be up to the government?”
Wisconsin, a swing state that has flipped between the parties in recent years, is just as divided on the issue of abortion. After Republicans expanded control of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010, Planned Parenthood lost over one million dollars within the next year.
Perez was working at Planned Parenthood when this funding was cut and had to move jobs due to the instability in payments. It was her favorite place she ever worked.
“It was crazy because we were all kind of trying to figure out if we were even going to get paid and we were nervous because they sent out an email, not knowing if they were going to be able to make payroll,” Perez said.
Walker proceeded to pass a large series of abortion laws that are still in place today, according to research by CORE.
These laws include a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, a ban on abortion 20 weeks post-fertilization, prohibition of telemedicine for medication abortions, a ban on insurance coverage of abortion for state workers and the requirement that only physicians can provide abortion services.
Now, GOP lawmakers in Wisconsin are attempting to pass more restrictive abortion legislation. For example, the Wisconsin legislature has already reintroduced their “Born Alive” abortion bill that was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers in the last legislative session in April 2020.
The bill would require health care workers to provide immediate care to ensure a newborn child is admitted to a hospital if the baby breathes, has a beating heart or shows the movement of voluntary muscles following an attempted abortion.
Murray said copycat versions of the Texas Heartbeat Bill threaten the services offered by Planned Parenthood and other organizations that advocate for abortion rights.
“The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court basically allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect in the state of Texas is definitely an invitation for other states who want to restrict access to abortion to do something similar,” Murray said.
Adoption is commonly suggested as an alternative to abortion. In Wisconsin, Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, drafted a series of pro-life bills in support of adoption.
Dittrich said she understands the “angst and fear of a woman seeking an abortion” but wants to encourage women to opt for adoption, rather than “making them think that killing their child is their only option.” The legislation Dittrich introduced includes protecting children from the effects of substance abuse and modifying timelines to move children into homes.
However, Dittrich called the Wisconsin adoption system “over-burdensome.” Studies show that many children stay in the foster system for years, and a higher proportion of African American children are waiting to be adopted than are adopted in Wisconsin. Additionally, older children are not as likely to be adopted as younger children in Wisconsin.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is also in support of abortion pro-life bills and said he supports closures of abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood, calling it an “organization that enthusiastically trades in body parts of unborn children.”
To add to the possible restrictions on abortion access, Wisconsin is redrawing its boundaries for congressional and legislative districts this year. The state currently has a Republican-controlled legislature, meaning the boundaries will likely be tailored to Republicans, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Though, the maps will have to be approved by Evers.
Higgins said she believes the current redistricting in Wisconsin poses a threat to abortion access, specifically for underrepresented groups that have a difficult time accessing abortions — particularly people of color or low-income individuals.
“This is a story about what voting redistricting and change in political landscape can mean for abortion access,” Higgins said. “In Wisconsin, the majority of voting citizens support abortion access, but the landscape of laws is disproportionate in terms of abortion restrictions versus access. That landscape will look much worse with further abortion restrictions and/or the overturning of Roe v. Wade.”
In Wisconsin, 53% of people think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Protection in election
One of the ways Sally says she advocates for reproductive rights is by yielding the 19th amendment — her right to vote.
Sally said she hopes to weaken the systems that support lawmakers who restrict reproductive rights or use the issue of abortion to benefit their political agenda.
Schuefele said Republicans are being logical in their messaging around important issues like Roe v. Wade and regulating big tech companies to keep the battle alive in order to keep their message at the forefront of discussions.
“I think part of the strategy [is] taking this to the Supreme Court, but I don’t think they were actually 100% certain that they would get the five-four decision that they got,” Schuefele said. “Instead, what they’re doing is they’re basically bringing up the issue, again and again, taking either little victories or little losses.”
A key move for advocates of abortion restriction was the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett has been clear in the past about her devotion to the Catholic faith and is expected to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. She did not block the Texas law when it went to the Supreme Court and was a part of the majority 5-4 decision.
The Supreme Court was designed to be apolitical, making decisions based on constitutionality, not according to political party lines or religion. The debate around whether this purpose holds true today, however, is ongoing.
Abortion is a largely debated issue in the religious community, as Catholic and Evangelical Protestant churches are especially vocal about their opposition to abortion. A statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states that there is an affirmed “moral evil” in abortion, and to them, this remains unchangeable.
President Biden, a Catholic, has faced backlash from religious authorities since before the beginning of his term because of his stance on abortion. In President Biden’s campaign platform, he said his Justice Department will do “everything in its power to stop the rash of state laws that so blatantly violate Roe v. Wade.”
After Biden won the White House, ten of the most powerful bishops in the U.S. decided to launch a “working group” on how to approach a Catholic president like Joe Biden. They are currently drafting guidelines for who should receive the Eucharist, claiming Biden does not adhere to the official beliefs of the religion.
According to UW political science professor Howard Schweber, there is a potential issue of church-state separation as American bishops declare that Biden or any other supporter of abortion rights should be denied communion.
“To a believing Catholic, the threat of being denied communion is a severe one, so we have a situation in which religious authorities are using their position to try to coerce an elected representative into supporting a particular policy against his principles,” Schweber said. “That strikes me as problematic.”
Some religious figures in Wisconsin, such as Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, have criticized Biden’s stance on abortion as well.
“People always claimed that President Biden was personally opposed to abortion. Today, he said, ‘I respect those who believe life begins at the moment of conception and all, I respect that — don’t agree — but I respect that.’ Today, we’ve all learned the painful and disturbing truth,” Hying said in a tweet.
Former President Trump’s presidency was “strongly pro-life,” which reflected the views of his large constituent base of Evangelical Christians.
Murray feels advocacy work is most important for people to get involved in and said relying on the federal government for protection won’t work anymore.
“It’s really important that people who care about these rights and freedoms are getting involved in work, to make sure that people who are running for office really share [and] reflect those values,” Murray said. “The access to those types of care will be won and lost in state legislatures in state elections for the foreseeable future.”
Despite a plethora of social, political and economic changes since 1947, Balwierz said she draws striking parallels between her childhood and now. She has been fighting for women’s rights her entire life.
“Things seem to be going backward,” Balwierz said. “Two steps forward, three steps back.”
Despite the complicated reality of abortion rights, activists, public figures and common citizens around the U.S. and other countries — even strong Catholic ones — are mobilizing in support of abortion. Mexico, Argentina, Guyana and Cuba are all giving more access to abortion and decriminalizing the procedure.
Thousands of people around the U.S. participated in women’s marches in early October as well. In Texas, abortion “hacktivists” flooded an abortion website, prolifewhistleblower.com, with fake tips, according to the New York Times. The tips claim Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was a violator of the newly passed law, either seeking, aiding or abetting in abortions.
Locally, there are many efforts at UW and around Wisconsin to advocate for abortion protections. CORE published a brief about the Texas law and how it could impact Wisconsin. The brief explained state abortion bans have more impact than federal bans and certain communities are more likely to be affected by this kind of ban.
Other Wisconsin state and federal legislators have spoken out on Twitter. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said, “Everyone deserves to make their own decisions about their health & future.”
For people like Sally, the benefits of the right to choose are standing right in front of them.
Sally’s children smile back at her, grateful to have a mother who wanted them and who could provide them with the care she knew she couldn’t offer them in 1976.
Sally is grateful both she and her mother were able to make the choices for their own bodies, and she is reminded that each story is an example of a personal choice made by an individual.
“It’s not just about pro-life or pro-choice for me, it’s about a lot of things,” Sally said. “It’s reproductive rights, it’s choice.”