MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge told a Milwaukee abortion doctor Thursday to renew his efforts to obtain hospital admitting privileges, hinting that it could resolve a lawsuit alleging a Wisconsin law requiring such privileges is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge William Conley said he was "bewildered" that Affiliated Medical Services abortion provider Dr. Dennis Christensen and his attorneys haven't received definitive responses from any Milwaukee hospitals. He told them to demand better answers from two facilities where Christensen is seeking admitting privileges.
"I'm being asked to strike down a law," Conley told them. "I take no pleasure in that. If there's a way to get privileges short of that, you should do that."
Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill last summer requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The measure's supporters argued the mandate would ensure better care for women who end up hospitalized with complications.
Planned Parenthood and Affiliated Medical Services sued. The groups argue the mandate would force AMS's Milwaukee clinic to close because Christensen and the other doctor who works there lack privileges and it's too difficult to obtain them.
The clinic is the only one in the state that offers abortions beyond 19 weeks of pregnancy; closing it would place an undue burden on women seeking the procedure, the organizations contend. Conley is wrapping up a weeklong bench trial to gather evidence in the case.
The judge isn't expected to issue a ruling for at least another month and a half, but now it appears the case will turn largely on whether Christensen can get privileges and if he can't, why.
Christensen testified Thursday that he has been pursuing admitting privileges at two Milwaukee hospitals for months but nothing has happened. He said he believes the lack of action stems from hospital credentialing officials' demand for information on patients he has treated in a hospital. He has no such data because he hasn't treated an abortion patient in such a setting for a decade, he said.
"The fact that we've managed to keep our patients out of the hospital appears to be a detriment to getting hospital privileges," Christensen said.
Conley said he was frustrated that Christensen and AMS attorneys have had months to prepare for the bench trial and still haven't definitively resolved whether Christensen can get privileges.
He warned AMS's attorneys that if they stopped pursuing answers in a bid to ensure Christensen doesn't get privileges so the lawsuit can continue it was a "horrendous idea." He said if they can't get definitive responses he can order the hospitals to answer.
Conley's remarks came at the end of a day that also saw the judge take the unusual step of setting up a discussion between three physicians — one chosen by the plaintiffs, one chosen by state attorneys and one of his own choosing — on how abortion patients benefit from providers having admitting privileges. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals advised Conley last year to take the rare step of calling his own expert to testify since both sides' witnesses might be biased.
Conley's expert, Serdar Bulun, chairman of Northwestern University's gynecology department, and the plantiff's expert, Dr. Douglas Laube, a University of Wisconsin-Madison medical professor, both said transfer agreements between clinics and hospitals ensure better care for abortion patients than do admitting privileges. Transfer agreements call for abortion clinics to send patients with complications to specific hospitals.
The state's expert, University of North Carolina obstetrician Dr. James Thorp, countered that transfer agreements amount to sending the patient off to a "black box" and don't help if a woman develops complications after leaving the abortion clinic.
A provider with admitting privileges is more apt to contact emergency room physicians about an incoming patient out of fear his or her privileges could be revoked, Thorp added.
"I reject the final premise," Thorp said, "that a law like this will harm Wisconsin women."