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U.S. Judge Issues 10-Day Freeze on New Wisconsin Abortion Law

Madison, Wis. — A federal judge yesterday put a 10-day freeze on a new state law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

In an opinion issued last evening, U.S. District Judge William M. Conley cited a “troubling lack of justification” for the law and said he would stay enforcement until July 18, a day after a scheduled hearing.

“There will almost certainly be irreparable harm to those women who will be foreclosed from having an abortion in the next week either because of the undue burden of travel or the late stage of pregnancy, as well as facing increasing health risks caused by delay,” the judge wrote. “Since the state has failed to date to demonstrate any benefit to maternal health of imposing this restriction, there is no meaningful counterweight recognized by the United States Supreme Court to justify the act’s immediate enforcement.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, which is defending the law, had no comment on the temporary stay.

Abortion clinics filed the lawsuit in federal court in Madison on Friday, immediately after Gov. Scott Walker signed the law, effective yesterday. The measure is expected to cut the number of clinics offering abortions in Wisconsin from four to two, and cause one of the remaining clinics to sharply cut the number of abortions it provides, according to the operators of the clinics.

Without Conley’s action, one clinic would have had to cancel 30 abortions or related appointments. Cancellations also would be necessary at the other two clinics, attorneys for the plaintiffs said yesterday.

Lester Pines, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, pointed to the Wisconsin Medical Society’s opposition to the law, saying that key doctors’ groups had publicly said that the law is unnecessary to protect women’s health. The measure was intended to limit access to abortions, Pines argued.

“The state cannot show that there is a legitimate medical purpose for this,” Pines said in court.

Daniel Lennington, an state assistant attorney general, focused in Monday’s hearing on what he said were the potential benefits of the law to women’s health and its overall impact.

“I don’t think that the plaintiffs have provided any proof that a woman’s right to an abortion is unduly burdened,” Lennington told Conley.

Planned Parenthood and Affiliated Medical Services brought the federal lawsuit against state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, Safety and Professional Services Secretary Dave Ross and the members of the state Medical Examining Board — all of whom have authority to enforce the law or issue sanctions.

Planned Parenthood has abortion clinics in Milwaukee, Madison and Appleton; Affiliated has one in Milwaukee. A fifth Wisconsin clinic that offers abortions, in Green Bay, plans to stop offering abortion services on Aug. 1 for reasons unrelated to the admitting privileges law, according to the suit.

Teri Huyck, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said last week that without a stay her group would have had to close its Appleton abortion clinic and offer at least 50 percent fewer abortions at its Milwaukee facility. Affiliated would have to close its Milwaukee clinic, according to the suit.

That would mean abortions in Wisconsin would not be available north of Madison, and after the 19th week of pregnancy would not be available anywhere in the state, according to the suit.

The clinics are asking the court to immediately block the law, contending it violates the constitution’s due process guarantee, puts an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose abortion and unconstitutionally treats doctors who perform abortions differently than doctors who perform other procedures.

Lennington argued that northern Wisconsin residents could still receive abortions in Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago or Minneapolis-St. Paul, and that the additional drive wasn’t an undue burden. But Conley brought him up short, noting the winter driving conditions that can prevail in northern Wisconsin.

“You haven’t driven those roads very often,” he said.