The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday over a case challenging a Mississippi law banning abortions after the 15th week — widely considered to be the most important case on abortion rights in decades.
Beyond defending the case in question, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state of Mississippi is asking the conservative majority court to overturn the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, which recognized the right to an abortion across the United States, and return this power to the states. If overturned, a handful of states with “trigger laws” on the issue — statutes that outlaw abortion but can only be enforced if Roe is undone — will suddenly be enacted. Wisconsin is among those with such a law.
“Wisconsin is one of those trigger states that if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn, repeal the Roe case from 1973, we’re looking at immediate illegalization of abortion access in Wisconsin,” says Sara Finger, Founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health.
Passed more than 172 years ago and enforced until the Roe decision, Wisconsin’s trigger law has almost no exceptions for allowing abortion services, Finger says. It would not provide access to an abortion for women on the bases of rape, incest, or even concerns over the health of the mother. Only pregnant individuals who could potentially die of a pregnancy would be able to use the medical procedure to save their lives.
“Too many people in Wisconsin have no idea that abortion access could be outlawed if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade,” Finger says. “People need to be aware that because of a law passed in 1849 in Wisconsin, any and all access to abortion care in our state is severely on the line.”
Even if Roe is upheld, Wisconsin remains one of the most abortion-restrictive states in the country. Several rules on abortion are meant to intimidate or shame women against getting the procedure, including requirements that force individuals to receive state-directed counseling that includes language discouraging them from doing so. A person must then wait 24 hours after that counseling before they can receive an abortion, and receive an ultrasound where providers must describe what’s shown on the screen in detail to the patient, who must also view the screen. The state also outlaws the practice after someone has reached week 20 of a pregnancy, except “in cases of life endangerment or severely compromised health.”
Geographic barriers also curb access for rural residents. As of this year, there are only four facilities in the state that provide abortion services, primarily in Madison and Milwaukee. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 70 percent of residents live in counties that don’t have reproductive healthcare clinics, and must travel a significant distance to obtain services.
According to an October survey from Marquette University Law School, 61 percent of Wisconsin residents polled believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Despite this, Republican lawmakers have introduced a slew of bills in recent years to further restrict access. In October, the Assembly passed a package of anti-abortion bills that would purportedly “protect children who survive abortion attempts” — a concept that medical professionals have disputed. Gov. Tony Evers vetoed these measures.
Attempts to contact the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos (R‑Rochester) for comment on this story received no response.
To combat Wisconsin’s trigger law, several Democratic lawmakers are advocating for a bill that would eliminate the 1849 law from the state statutes. Authored by State Rep. Lisa Subeck (D‑Madison), the Abortion Rights Preservation Act would “repeal Wisconsin’s criminal abortion ban and preserve the right to make personal reproductive healthcare decisions without interference from politicians.” Though introduced in February, the legislature has not yet taken action on the bill or given it a hearing.
With a decision expected this summer, the reverberations of the Supreme Court’s final ruling on Dobbs will be felt across the country — no place harsher or stricter, perhaps, than in Wisconsin.
Chris Walker is a political news writer with two decades of experience, based out of Madison, Wisconsin.