Wisconsin admitting privileges trial in federal court: an overview


By Barbara L. Lyons, Executive Director of Wisconsin Right to Life and Heather Weininger, Legislative Director of Wisconsin Right to Life

U.S. District Judge William M. Conley

U.S. District Judge William M. Conley

From May 27 through May 30, 2014, U.S. District Judge William Conley heard testimony in his federal court room on Wisconsin Act 37, a law which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. Act 37 was signed into law in July of 2013 by Governor Scott Walker and was immediately challenged by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin (PPWI), Affiliated Medical Services (AMS), and various other parties. Judge Conley enjoined the law and called for a trial to determine its constitutionality.

Plaintiffs called many witnesses including three abortionists, several physicians, an abortion clinic manager and sociologists. The main themes of the testimony challenging the law were the following:

  • While PPWI has obtained admitting privileges for all of its abortionists, AMS has tried for months and been unable to obtain them.
  • If AMS is forced to close, PPWI will not be able to absorb the AMS patients nor have the infrastructure to take over AMS.
  • Women will have to travel to Chicago for the late-term abortions currently performed in Wisconsin only by AMS. Finding and affording transportation will be hardest on low-income women.
  • Complications are very uncommon and PPWI and AMS already have procedures for transporting a woman to a hospital if necessary. Admitting privileges will not improve care for women.
  • It is more and more difficult to find abortionists and requiring admitting privileges makes it even harder. One of the reasons is the harassment endured by abortionists from protesters who come to their homes and neighborhoods.
  • PPWI performed 3,300 abortions in 2013 at its three abortion clinics. AMS performed 2,500 that same year. PPWI requires ultrasound prior to abortion.

Witnesses for the defendants included physicians and a woman who suffered abortion complications. Some of their testimony included the following:

  • Abortion complications are under-reported because the reporting system is basically voluntary. Maternal deaths from abortion may be under-reported by as much as 50%.
  • Admitting privileges ensure continuity of care for women which can be critical in terms of time and lead to better outcomes and safety for the woman.
  • Hospital credentialing is protective of patients, not providers.
  • Physician to physician communication improves outcomes.
  • Admitting privileges allow a hospital to discipline a physician who did not provide adequate care for a transported patient.
  • A few years ago the National Abortion Federation (a kind of trade association for abortion “providers”) exhibited guideline on its website stating that doctors should be able to admit patients to a hospital no more than 20 minutes away from the abortion clinic.

Judge Conley listened intently to all testimony and asked numerous questions. At one point, he told the CEO of PPWI that her staffing concerns exist right now and it is part of a CEO’s job to address concerns. He admonished AMS and its attorneys for what he perceived as lack of effort in acquiring admitting privileges.

Conley stated that if they had languished in their efforts in order to embellish their lawsuit, it was a very bad decision on their part. Also, federal law allows a court to impose requirements for information on hospitals but Conley was not asked to use his power to assist in gaining admission privileges.

A decision is expected sometime this summer. Regardless of the outcome, the loser is expected to appeal.