Federal Judge Blocks Wisconsin Admitting Privileges Law

In a harshly worded opinion, a federal judge ruled Friday that the state's admitting privileges law is likely unconstitutional.

In a harshly worded opinion, a federal judge ruled Friday that the state’s admitting privileges law is likely unconstitutional. Gavel and American Constitution via Shutterstock

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Friday blocking a Wisconsin law that requires every physician who performs an abortion to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The law blocked Friday is similar to laws in Alabama and Mississippi that were blocked by federal district courts earlier this year, as well as a North Dakota law blocked by a state trial court just last week.

The Wisconsin law was challenged on July 7 by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. In issuing the preliminary injunction, the court ruled that Planned Parenthood is likely to succeed on the claim that the law unconstitutionally interferes with a woman’s right to access safe, legal abortion care.

The medically unnecessary nature of the admitting privileges law was apparent to the court and guided the decision the block the law. U.S. District Judge William M. Conley wrote:

Most telling of all is defendants’ inability—despite repeated opportunities and prompting by this court—to provide a single example of the recognized importance of local admitting privileges for any other clinical or outpatient procedure than abortion anywhere in Wisconsin, and not just by a governmental entity, but by any medical group or society. The reason for this would appear obvious: were a procedure sufficiently dangerous as to require, or even have a substantial risk of hospitalization, it would likely be performed in a hospital. The fact that procedures demonstrably more dangerous (by a factor of ten or more) including procedures requiring general anesthesia, are performed in outpatient facilities underscores defendants’ present failure, and likely inability, to meet their burden of proof that a reasonable relationship exists between admitting privileges and continuity of care.

Attorneys for the State of Wisconsin tried to defend the admitting privileges law by arguing that the requirement was necessary to protect women from abortion-related complications. However, as the court noted, the state failed to provide any evidence that there’s any relationship between the admitting privileges requirement and maternal health:

Defendants’ position may have some merit if they could articulate a single, actual instance where a provider’s lack of admitting privileges had been a factor in an abortion patient’s negative outcome or the ability to properly consider or sanction a responsible provider for such an outcome in Wisconsin. When pressed at the hearing, defendants were unable to even provide an example where an abortion provider’s refusal to assist with continuity of care led to further complications. At this stage, defendants have failed to present any evidence that patient abandonment post-abortion is even a legitimate concern in Wisconsin. On this record, the admitting privileges requirement remains a solution in search of a problem.

Friday’s injunction reinforces the fact that restrictions that impose a substantial obstacle to safe abortion care are unconstitutional, no matter what justification anti-abortion lawmakers provide. “Even if there were some evidence that the admitting privileges requirement would actually further women’s health,” wrote Conley, “any benefit is greatly outweighed by the burdens caused by increased travel, decreased access and, at least for some women, the denial of an in-state option for abortion services.”

As a result of Friday’s ruling, Wisconsin’s admitting privileges law is blocked pending a trial on its merits, which will take place in November.