State Department of Justice lawyers were in court last week defending a 2013 Wisconsin law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. During the four-day bench trial before U.S. Circuit Judge William Conley, one name came up during the cross-examination of each expert witness for the state: Vincent Rue.
Carrie Flaxman, an attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, one of the plaintiffs challenging the law, asked Dr. James C. Anderson, a family practice and emergency room doctor based in Virginia, how he became involved in the case.
Anderson said he was contacted by the state attorney general's office and Rue, who helped him with "wordsmithing" his report to the court.
Flaxman also asked Dr. James Linn, who practices obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, if he was aware that Rue had been "discredited."
Linn said he was not.
Rue, a psychotherapist, coined the term "post-abortion syndrome," which purports a link between abortion and mental health issues. First proposed in the early 1980s, the condition is not recognized by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who conducted a comprehensive review of the scientific literature (PDF) in 2008, also rejected the hypothesis.
According to an online bio, Rue is currently the director of the Institute for Pregnancy Loss in Jacksonville, Fla., described as an "independent nonprofit research and treatment center." Rue notes that he has treated "numerous women and men who have been traumatized by their abortion experience" and that he serves as a "litigation consultant" for numerous offices of state attorneys general in abortion-related lawsuits.
According to documents obtained by Isthmus, the Wisconsin Department of Justice expects to pay Rue $47,362.50 for his work as an "expert consultant" on the admitting-privileges lawsuit, officially known as Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, Inc. et al. v. Van Hollen, et al.
DOJ administrator Kevin Potter says Rue was first retained when Affiliated Medical Services, an abortion clinic in Milwaukee, and Planned Parenthood, which operates three abortion clinics in the state, sought a preliminary injunction against the law last July.
Judge Conley stayed the law on July 8 while the litigation played out, writing in his decision that "The record to date strongly supports a finding that no medical purpose is served by this requirement." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit later upheld the lower court's decision blocking the law from taking effect.
Supporters of the law, which was championed by anti-abortion activists and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, said it would ensure continuity of care for women who experience complications from an abortion. Opponents countered that abortion is a safe outpatient procedure and that clinics would close because doctors would not be able to get hospital admitting privileges, which allow them to admit and treat patients.
The Department of Justice has three contracts with Rue, the original and two renewals.
According to the agreements, Rue was hired to assist the DOJ in the "development of case strategy, procurement of expert witnesses" and in "discovery and trial preparation." He is also a "liaison between the Office and the experts."
The contract states that Rue "possesses a high degree of professional expertise in litigation consulting and abortion practice and research."
But according to research prepared by Camino Public Relations for Planned Parenthood, judges twice threw out testimony from Rue in abortion cases in the early 1990s due to his limited clinical and research experience. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey the judge also wrote that Rue's "admitted personal opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, suggests a possible personal bias."
Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says that Rue's role in defending hospital admitting-privileges cases around the country represents another layer in the "coordinated national effort" to outlaw abortion.
"For years, organizations opposed to safe and legal abortion have proudly claimed credit for restricting women's health care through 'model legislation' they shop around to politicians," says Ferrero. "But now that we're seeing states rely on a long-discredited anti-abortion activist to help prepare their legal defense, it's crystal clear that laws like this have no basis in medicine...and only serve to put women's health in danger by wiping out access to safe, legal medical care."
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Doctors in Wisconsin performing many outpatient surgeries, including colonoscopies and hysteroscopies, do not need hospital admitting privileges.
So two key questions in the challenge to Wisconsin's hospital admitting-privileges law are why abortion providers would need hospital privileges and how safe a procedure abortion is.
Opponents say complications occur in less than 1% of abortions, but experts testifying for the state argue the number is higher.
This was one area of disagreement where Judge Conley sought clarity by taking the unusual move of convening a "colloquy" of experts on the third day of the trial. Conley posed questions to the plaintiff's expert, Dr. Doug Laube, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the defense's expert, John Thorp Jr., professor at the University of North Carolina and director of UNC Women's Primary Healthcare; and his own "neutral expert," Serdar Bulun, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
Conley said he wanted to see where "consensus" could be reached and "the reasons for disagreement. I'm trying to arrive at the truth."
All three experts agreed, when asked, that abortion was a "relatively safe procedure."
But it was only under cross-examination that Thorp admitted his written report to the court was in error in stating that complications occurred in 2% to 10% of abortions. A decimal was misplaced, Thorp said. The actual range was .2% to 10%.
At the end of the two-hour colloquy, Conley asked Bulun if he heard anything that would change the written analysis he had submitted to the court. He said no.
"I think it would be an unacceptable experiment to decrease access to abortion and see if people would die," said Bulun. "It's not acceptable, not ethical."
But the defense was no doubt buoyed later that day when the judge appeared frustrated that Dennis Christensen, one of two doctors who perform abortions at Affiliated Medical Service in Milwaukee, the state's only clinic providing late-term abortions, had not gotten definitive answers from the hospitals he had contacted on whether he would be granted admitting privileges.
"I'm being asked to strike down a law," Conley said. "I take no pleasure in that. If you can better inform the court of what the burdens are, I would advise you to do that."