MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Abortion providers tried to persuade a federal judge Tuesday to strike down a Wisconsin law that requires them to have hospital admitting privileges, arguing the mandate is unnecessary, creates nearly insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles and could lead to risky delays for women seeking the procedures.
The law's supporters say it will ensure continuity of care if a woman develops complications during an abortion and has to be hospitalized. But Planned Parenthood and Affiliated Medical Services filed a lawsuit last summer arguing the requirement will force AMS's Milwaukee clinic to close because providers there lack admitting privileges. Planned Parenthood fears the closure could mean hundreds of additional women will turn to them, overwhelming their clinics and creating longer waits for abortions.
"It will definitely hurt the women in Wisconsin who are often the most vulnerable," Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin's medical director, Dr. Kathy King, testified.
Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that recently passed laws requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges. Abortion clinics in Alabama have filed a lawsuit similar to the one in Wisconsin.
Planned Parenthood and AMS filed their lawsuit July 5, the day Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the legislation. U.S. District Judge William Conley has blocked the law from taking effect while he weighs the lawsuit. Conley began a bench trial Tuesday that's expected to last until at least Friday. He's not expected to issue a ruling for weeks, though.
The organizations initially argued that the law would force a Planned Parenthood clinic in Appleton and an AMS clinic in Milwaukee to close because doctors at both facilities lacked admitting privileges, placing an undue burden on women seeking abortions. AMS is the only facility in Wisconsin that provides abortions after 19 weeks of pregnancy; if it were to close, women who want abortions at or beyond that point would have to go out-of-state.
Doctors who work in the Appleton clinic have gotten their privileges since the lawsuit was filed. But AMS's doctors still have none.
The organizations' attorneys kicked off the trial arguing that abortion procedures are safe and patients rarely end up in the hospital, negating the need for admitting privileges.
Wendie Ashlock, director of AMS's Milwaukee clinic, testified that three patients out of nearly 5,000 in 2012 and 2013 were transferred to a hospital. King testified four patients out of roughly 8,400 were transported from Planned Parenthood's Milwaukee clinic to a hospital between 2009 and 2013. King said even with admitting privileges she would leave treatment to hospital staff anyway.
Both Ashlock and King testified it's been a struggle to win admitting privileges because hospitals demand so much background. Ashlock said one of the AMS doctors tried to get privileges starting in July; he was finally rejected in March. King said it took her nearly 11 months to get privileges for herself in Appleton.
If AMS can't get privileges, the 2,000 or so women who use its clinic annually probably will turn to the Milwaukee Planned Parenthood facility, which won't be able to deal with the influx, King said. The clinic's current three-to-four week appointment delays could stretch to 10, she said, adding that every week a woman waits for an abortion makes the process riskier.
State attorneys pushed back, arguing the providers brought the delays on themselves because they took so long to gather application information. They also pointed out Planned Parenthood could expand to handle more patients if AMS closes.
But Planned Parenthood Wisconsin President Teri Huyck testified her clinics lack the staff and equipment to handle more patients. Recruiting more doctors is difficult because abortion providers face intense harassment, she said.
State attorneys are scheduled to present witnesses Wednesday.