Last Resort Abortion in a Rural Reproductive Rights Wasteland

“If abortion is taken away in Wisconsin completely, people will do much worse things.”

Sam Stroozas

A pro-life banner hangs on the side of a building in Tomah, Wis., on Aug. 12, 2021, contributing to the milieu of abortion’s social stigma in rural Wisconsin. AARON OF L.A. PHOTOGRAPHY

When Isabelle started craving pickles in summer 2021, she knew something was wrong. She assumed her late period was stress-related — until she took a pregnancy test. At 21, unable to raise a child and without access to abortion care in her rural community, Isabelle self-induced an abortion.

In Wisconsin, a state with some of the most severely restrictive” abortion laws in the nation, people in need of an abortion have little time to lose. As of 2021, only four health centers in Wisconsin provide the abortion pill, which must be taken within 11 weeks of the last menstrual period. And only three health centers provide in-clinic procedures, all in cities far from most rural residents—two Planned Parenthood clinics in Milwaukee and Madison, and an Affiliated Medical Services clinic in Milwaukee. That means only three of Wisconsin’s 71 counties have an abortion provider.

Because of social stigma, Isabelle (whose name has been changed) told few people about her pregnancy. I [fear] everyone is like, You’re a whore; you should have seen it coming,’” Isabelle says. I did everything that I should have been doing to prevent pregnancy and I still ended up in this situation.”

Like Isabelle, 70% of people who need abortions in Wisconsin don’t have local access to clinics. Even with access, people face restrictions like 24-hour waiting periods and state-mandated anti-abortion counseling, forced ultrasound viewings and parental consent (for minors). Wisconsin also prohibits abortion coverage in insurance plans for public employees and those sold on the federal insurance marketplace. Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, an 1849 state law would immediately outlaw almost all abortions.

Wisconsin is also one of 23 states to have TRAP laws on the books, short for the targeted regulation of abortion providers,” which saddle abortion providers with medically unnecessary restrictions. One such law, for example, requires that health centers providing the procedure be within 30 minutes of a hospital. In addition, anti-abortion groups have established 55 so-called crisis pregnancy centers around the state, which claim to offer reproductive care but mostly exist to intercept, delay and confuse people in need of abortions. Many are located in rural cities like Beaver Dam, Elkhorn, Ladysmith and Woodruff — one of the places Isabelle called after she discovered she was pregnant.

But Isabelle never had any hesitation about getting an abortion. At that point in my life, I knew I could not raise a child and have it be a well-adjusted human,” she says. I was still in college; I had no job; I had no money; I didn’t really have my own place to stay … it was a completely selfless act in my mind.”

Still, Isabelle had no way to get to a clinic, the closest being over three hours away. She called her local hospital, but her doctor told me everything she could do for me if I kept it, but nothing she could do for me if I couldn’t,” Isabelle says.

Next, Isabelle called New Dawn Pregnancy Resource Center in Woodruff, an antiabortion center. She knew she could not get an abortion there, but thought the pregnancy resource center” would help. Of course, it did not.

Finally, Isabelle asked her partner to drive her to a clinic. But he refused, and she couldn’t do it alone, as the 24-hour waiting period and mandatory checkups would require three or four roundtrips.

Michelle Velasquez, director of advocacy at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, says rural and low-income residents are often left behind. Velasquez tells In These Times that because health centers often rent their spaces, landlord discretion and zoning laws can inhibit centers’ abilities to move into communities. In other places, anti-abortion protestors gather outside of Planned Parenthoods, even the ones that do not perform abortions. 

Many who need abortions seek discreet options, such as Just the Pill, a nonprofit that operates virtually in Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming and serves surrounding states. Because the abortion pill cannot be mailed in Wisconsin, for example, the group drops it off at the Minnesota border. Regardless, as Dr. Julie Amaon, medical director at Just the Pill, points out, rural residents still need transportation.

With time running out, Isabelle’s only option was to self-induce an abortion. She started a daily regimen that included three packs of cigarettes, lots of alcohol and 5,000 milligrams of vitamin C. Within days, she started bleeding vaginally; two weeks later, another pregnancy test confirmed it was over.

I thought, I am getting rid of this baby and that’s all I am going to do,’” Isabelle says. If abortion is taken away in Wisconsin completely, people will do much worse things.” 

Sam Stroozas is a freelance journalist writing about gender and sexual health.

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