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Judges question Wisconsin abortion law

Lawmakers singled out clinics in setting admitting privileges

Dec. 4, 2013
 
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CHICAGO — An appellate court on Tuesday questioned a lawyer for the state of Wisconsin about why lawmakers singled out abortion clinics, including one in Grand Chute, in requiring their doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, as judges heard arguments about the hotly debated law.

The sometimes-contentious, hourlong hearing before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was meant to help a three-judge panel decide whether to lift a temporary block on the law imposed by a lower court.

Such laws in Wisconsin, as well as similar laws in Texas and other states, have recently become a focus of debate over abortion. Critics say they’re designed to stymie abortion rights, while supporters say the laws protect women’s health.

Judges often play devil’s advocate during oral arguments, so questions they pose aren’t always an indication of which way they are leaning. But the three judges in Chicago, led by Judge Richard Posner, were especially aggressive in their questioning of Daniel Lennington, Wisconsin’s assistant attorney general.

At times appearing exasperated, Posner repeatedly interrupted Lennington, asking why lawmakers — if it’s true they saw the law as primarily a public health measure and not an anti-abortion bill — focused on abortion clinics and not other outpatient clinics, such as those performing laparoscopic surgeries.

“Why did they start with abortion clinics? Because it begins with the letter ‘A’?” Posner asked.

Lennington answered, “I don’t have a conjecture (about why).” Later, in response to similar questions, Lennington said it was the prerogative of legislators to act as they did.

Posner also cited figures that just 0.3 percent of abortions have medical complications. Asked if there were records of women dying in Wisconsin after abortions, Lennington said he didn’t know.

At that point, Posner said about the law, “It doesn’t sound reasonable. It sounds irrational.”

Another panelist, Judge David Hamilton, cited provisions in the bill that allow parents and grandparents to sue for emotional harm if it turns out a doctor who performed an abortion lacked admitting privileges. Theoretically, the judge said, that could mean relatives of a rapist filing lawsuits after abortions.

Posner, and the other appellate judge, Daniel Manion, did not immediately issue a ruling. Their decision, which will require a majority, isn’t expected for at least several weeks.

The judges asked Planned Parenthood attorney Carrie Flaxman if she knew how many abortion clinic doctors would be hurt by the legislation. She said she didn’t have a number and also conceded that nearly all doctors who she knows who applied for the admitting privilege in recent months were granted it.

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