Since the U.S. Supreme Court revoked the federal constitutional right to an abortion in June, Wisconsin physicians have operated under a near-total abortion ban from the 1800s. Physicians say the language articulating the ban’s narrow exceptions is vague. That makes the question of what they should do in certain situations open to interpretation, including when the pregnant person’s health is at risk.
Legal questions surround Wisconsin’s abortion law as well. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul is suing legislative leaders over the 173-year-old ban, hoping that state courts will agree with his argument that it conflicts with more recent abortion legislation and should not be enforced.
“It’s very hard for people to be in a sense of limbo — to not know what the future holds for Wisconsin,” said Mike Murray, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.
With that uncertainty in mind, Wisconsin Watch spoke to medical and legal experts to answer your questions about abortion access and reproductive rights in the state.
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I want to terminate my pregnancy. How can I legally get an abortion?
While Wisconsin clinics have halted elective abortions since the Supreme Court ruling, abortions remain legal in neighboring states, including Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Some states have attempted to ban leaving the state for an abortion, but “Wisconsin has no such law,” said Diane Welsh, who specializes in health law at the Madison-based firm Pines Bach.
If you choose to leave Wisconsin for an elective abortion, below is a breakdown of what to expect elswehere.
In Illinois, abortion remains legal under a 2019 law and Illinois Supreme Court holdings. Abortion is legal in Illinois until the fetus reaches “viability,” the time at which an attending physician determines there is a “significant likelihood of a fetus’ sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.” That usually happens around 24 weeks of pregnancy, medical experts say — a timeline determined by counting from the first day of the pregnant person’s last period. But viability can differ between pregnancies, and health care providers can help you assess it.
If you are under 18 and seeking abortion care services, Illinois clinics are not legally required to contact a parent or legal guardian. Illinois also does not require patients to endure a waiting period, view an ultrasound or receive information from the state, as some other states do, a guide from the ACLU Illinois explains.
In Minnesota, the Supreme Court recognizes a state constitutional right to abortion, and in July, a judge struck down certain restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that parents or a legal guardian of a minor seeking an abortion be notified.
Like in Illinois, abortion in Minnesota is legal until “viability.
Abortion access in Iowa remains legal, although a recent state Supreme Court ruling gives the state’s Republican-controlled legislaure authority to restrict access if they reconvene to change state law. Iowa currently bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That’s 22 weeks after the last menstrual period. This deadline has exceptions to protect the health of a pregnant person or save the person’s life.
Iowa requires people seeking an abortion to sit through a counseling session and wait at least a day before the procedure. The state requires parental or guardian notification for patients aged 17 years or younger.
Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin can help patients navigate out-of-state appointments. That includes providing information and financial support, said Murray, of Planned Parenthood.
The organization also offers pre- and post-abortion care. For instance, if you don’t know the exact date of your last menstrual period, you can schedule a free “pregnancy assessment and ultrasound dating” at clinics in Madison, Milwaukee and Sheboygan.
AbortionFinder.org offers a full list of abortion providers.
If you need help with funding, here are a few of your options:
- National Network of Abortion Funds
- Midwest Access Coalition
- Freedom Fund, which helps residents of central and northern Wisconsin
If I return to Wisconsin following an out-of-state abortion and experience complications, can I get in trouble while going for help at the ER? What should I tell them?
Wisconsin’s abortion ban does not include criminal penalties for a pregnant person obtaining an abortion, so you cannot face prosecution for obtaining an abortion in or outside the state. Instead, Wisconsin’s law leaves providers of in-state abortions open to prosecution.
“From a purely medical standpoint, I would want my patient to be able to be entirely honest so I could offer her the best possible management for her concerns in the most holistic manner, addressing not only her physical concerns but also emotional, social, and whatever else these challenging situations involve,” said Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a Green Bay obstetrician and gynecologist.
Additionally, federal privacy law prohibits health care providers from disclosing information about a patient’s post-abortion care, Welsh said.
Still, patients could become involved in an investigation of an abortion provider, which could include collection of evidence like cell phones, Lyerly said.
Patients should be careful about sharing information, said Lyerly, who recommends that recipients of abortion care outside of Wisconsin call the clinic where they received care to seek guidance. Many clinics offer 24-hour hotlines for issues that may arise. If the complications are life-threatening or worsen quickly, though, call 911 or show up to the nearest emergency room.
I’m pregnant and have a life-threatening condition. What should I do?
This hits at the trickiest part of Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. Its lone exception is for life-saving “therapeutic abortions.” The law says the procedure must be deemed necessary “or is advised by 2 other physicians as necessary, to save the life of the mother.” There are myriad circumstances in which an abortion might be necessary to prevent disease or death, OB-GYNs say.
Without statutory or administrative guidance from the state, professional associations, health systems and hospitals — even physicians themselves — are developing policies to guide pregnancy-related care, as Wisconsin Watch recently reported. But whatever advice they provide will not be binding — nor universally applicable. The circumstances under which a person will receive an abortion in Wisconsin will ultimately depend on the health system or hospital — and, when it comes down to it, individual doctors.
That means medical interventions during a pregnancy could vary widely. The uncertainty may cause delays in intervention, especially in rural areas.
If you have a life-threatening condition and you’re pregnant, immediately seek a doctor’s guidance.
Patients who feel that a physician or health system isn’t promptly addressing their needs should “seek a second opinion, from another provider — including a provider in a neighboring state,” Welsh said.
Can I still buy emergency contraception like the morning-after pill?
Yes. Emergency contraception — often called the morning-after pill — remains legal and available for purchase in Wisconsin. The most well-known brand is called Plan B, but Aftera, Take Action, and My Way are all available without a prescription. Emergency contraception does not function as an abortion — it works by preventing or delaying ovulation to prevent fertilization within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Planned Parenthood offers emergency prescription medication to walk-ins during their business hours. That requires a brief visit with a health care provider on site. Wisconsin pharmacies continue to provide emergency contraception, although some limit how many one person may buy at once. Health care providers advise against stockpiling them anyway, since they expire after about a year. The pill typically costs $40-$50.
Some emergency contraception pills are less effective for people weighing more than 165 pounds, research shows. Planned Parenthood typically offers a version called Ella, which remains effective for people weighing up to 195 pounds.
Should I be concerned about my data privacy when searching for or seeking abortion?
The short answer, experts say: yes.
Almost immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some people who use period-tracking apps like Clue and Flo began deleting them, fearful that their data could be used against them.
The Federal Trade Commission has warned tech companies against misusing data from those seeking reproductive health care following an executive order from President Joe Biden. Congress is examining additional protections, but experts still recommend an abundance of caution.
You should be concerned about your data privacy in general, especially when seeking an abortion, said Dorothea Salo, a professor who specializes in information security and privacy at the Information School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Be especially wary of most commercial search engines, she said.
“We know they collect and retain search data, including search queries; we know they associate that data with individual searchers; we know they share, aggregate and sell it all over creation; we know that law enforcement agencies access it,” said Salo, who uses DuckDuckGo but notes that other search engines provide similar benefits.
Additionally, federal law allows internet providers to analyze, share and sell data on individual customers’ internet use habits. Even VPNs — virtual private networks — are not guaranteed to protect your data, Salo cautioned.
“VPNs are what economists call a ‘lemon market,’ meaning that their claims and practices aren’t well-audited and consumers can’t know in advance which to trust,” she said. Although regulators are examining that issue, any changes would take time.
Additionally, most websites are “slathered in adtech and tracking tech that’s designed to associate individual people with the information they use and the things they say,” Salo notes. Law enforcement could feasibly obtain this data, depending on how aggressively they pursue abortion-related charges.
If this sounds overwhelming, Salo recommends starting with a step-by-step digital security guide, like this one from the Digital Defense Fund. It caters specifically to abortion-related privacy concerns and advises on avoiding advertisements related to pregnancy and abortion and making sure your phone company cannot access messages you send.
Can I legally help my friend travel across state lines to get an abortion?
Yes. Just as traveling across state lines for an abortion remains legal in Wisconsin, so does helping someone do so.
But similar data privacy concerns may still apply, Salo says. Being conscientious about who has access to your information is never a bad idea.
Can I legally get abortion pills in the mail?
No. Wisconsinites must travel to another state to legally receive abortion pills in the mail.
Wisconsin law bars anyone other than a physician to administer abortion medication, and only after they perform a physical examination and share certain information. While the law does not make recipients of mailed abortion pills subject to criminal prosecution, the person shipping the pills could face charges, Welsh said.
One legal workaround: picking up pills in another state. Certain Planned Parenthood locations outside of Wisconsin offer telehealth visits for the abortion pill. The closest is in Illinois. That’s the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. Accessing the abortion pill after your telehealth visit would require picking up a prescription while visiting that state or having them mailed to an address inside of that state.
Legislative action or a court ruling could change the legality of receiving abortion pills in the mail in the future, Welsh said.
There’s a pregnancy clinic in my neighborhood. Will they help me?
Pregnancy clinics, also known as “crisis pregnancy centers” or CPCs, typically present themselves as health clinics, but they primarily aim to dissuade pregnant people from accessing abortions — including by spreading misinformation, research shows. Often religiously affiliated, some centers provide pregnancy tests, testing for sexually transmitted infections and ultrasounds, “however, the images are frequently non-diagnostic and often obtained by untrained, unlicensed staff,” according to a review of academic literature on CPCs published by the International Journal of Women’s Health.
“These facilities engage in purposefully manipulative and deceptive practices that spread misinformation on sexual health and abortion,” the review found. “CPCs have also been shown to delay access to medically legitimate prenatal and abortion care, which negatively impacts maternal health.”
Added Planned Parenthood Murray: “They oftentimes won’t even mention the option of an abortion as a potential health care option for that patient.”
CPCs may be located close to reputable abortion clinics and designed like a normal physician’s office. These unregulated centers are not medical establishments, so they are not bound by any privacy laws, and have been shown to collect patients’ personal data.
The Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, a project of two professors at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, tracks 58 known centers in Wisconsin.
Disclosure: Pines Bach provides pro bono legal representation to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, but it did not provide legal services related to or participate in the writing or editing of this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.