Roe v Wade Overturned: Wisconsin’s responsibility now…what will it be? 

by Ralph Knudson, Board Member, La Crosse County Democratic Party

I am a retired family physician who has delivered many hundreds of babies.  I have been privileged for 50 years to be part of thousands of extremely personal conversations as my responsibility to listen and learn about each person’s individual needs and values; to help each person get the right care they need.  To do that, I needed to put my personal biases aside and deal with medical reality in a compassionate way.   Patient-physician conversations need to be rooted in trust and individual respect.  It’s a basic foundation of medical care, and what all patients need and expect.   

Roe vs Wade had recognized that women’s decisions about health should be respected as personal and trusted choices. During pregnancy, conflicting options sometimes need to be considered when painful and difficult medical situations arise. 

 For example, if cervical or breast cancer is found during early pregnancy,  one option is to defer cancer treatment ( while also knowing that pregnancy can cause rapid progression and spread of such a cancer).  Another option is to begin aggressive treatment to protect the mother’s life and health (but cancer treatments could kill or severely damage the fetus).  For this reason, abortion of the pregnancy is also an option that needs serious consideration.  Each decision becomes the mother’s own to make, after learning facts and risks.    This example is only one of many terrible choices women can face with complicated or unexpected pregnancies…some complications can become life-threatening within hours or days (eclampsia, abrupt placenta bleeding etc.), and others can have lethal outcomes months or years later if unrecognized and unmanaged (renal failure, cancer, etc.). 

 A physician’s job is to help the patient understand risks, consequences and choices during a terrible time.   Trust, honesty and respect are expected.  Roe vs Wade protected that right.  Now, with Roe v Wade overturned, that right is no longer guaranteed on a national scale.  Each state now needs to decide who makes such difficult choices, and on what basis.  

Wisconsin now faces a crossroads about issues of personal privacy, patient-physician protection, and whether beliefs should legally overrule medical realities about women’s health and pregnancy when difficult decisions present themselves.  A few groups (often driven by religious belief) are hoping to impress enforceable law on everyone; contrary to the freedom of religion notion that was a critical part of our nation’s founding. 

After fleeing state-controlled religious suppression in Europe’s kingdoms,  our founding fathers recognized that government control or suppression of religious beliefs (such as Protestant, Catholic or non-Christian) could only led to endless turmoil and violence.  So to establish stability and justice, the separation of church and state power was a foundation of our new government. Religious beliefs had no place in government, and government had no place to force religious beliefs on citizens.  Many religious groups do not consider abortion to be murder of a conscious, viable person.  Even within religions, many followers at least admit their belief about when personhood develops during pregnancy is simply that…a personal belief.  

Is it right that one religious group should dictate their beliefs onto all others?  Would it lead to acceptance and stability, or would it be an unenforceable effort to control or suppress others’ beliefs?  

As it now stands, Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion law bans all abortions, unless pregnancy risks the life of the mother. Period.  This law was written when medical care and obstetrical knowledge was primitive.  Anesthesia, sterile surgical technique, antibiotics, genetic testing, cancer treatment and almost every medical method we use to protect life was unknown then.  This law was (and is) unable to recognize the many difficult situations, choices and decisions we now face in women’s medical care.  What provision is there for a patient and doctor facing cervical or breast cancer found during pregnancy?  Or for a traumatized 12-year-old child, pregnant from rape or incest?  Who makes such awful decisions?  A legislator? A lawyer? A panel of doctors? The patient? Parents? How soon?  Based on beliefs, or on medical knowledge and risks to mother and baby? Who takes responsibility for consequences of decisions made or forced upon a woman? How?  Who actually experiences the consequences?  Where does Wisconsin law recognize the trust needed for a compassionate, personal doctor-patient relationship be effective for a woman to navigate such terrible choices?   

This will be difficult.  Rhetoric, grandstanding and blunt control will not protect individual rights or freedom from one religious belief over another. It will not recognize the many situations that can put women and their families at risk of medical and social disaster.  

Will Wisconsin move beyond anti-abortion and pro-choice rhetoric to find meaningful discussion to change 1849 law into something that actually protects obstetrical care, women’s health and the health and well-being of babies and families after birth? If medical providers and women face blunt, prohibitive bans on health management options in Wisconsin, how many tragedies will we see, and how many dangerous and illegal abortions will go unseen?  How difficult will it be to attract or retain medical providers for women in the coming years?  How aggressive will Wisconsin be to not hinder.. but to support and promote… contraceptive availability? Will Wisconsin law actually materially support at-risk women, families and babies after the birth of unplanned pregnancies?  What will be the cost to us all if we don’t?  

Citizens who have first-hand knowledge and experience with these issues (women, their medical care providers and social support workers)  all need to be at the table to develop meaningful law in Wisconsin. 

The politics that got us here is about power.  We will need legislation that is about health and well-being of women and their babies.