David Michael Miller
The announcement that Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin will not reopen its Appleton abortion clinic is yet another blow to pro-choice advocates in the state. Planned Parenthood officials cite excessive costs for security upgrades in light of the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.
“The pro-choice movement is going into damage control,” says Eliza Cussen, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. “There’s only three clinics that provide abortions left in the state. That means there is one clinic for just about 1 million Wisconsin women. That puts us on par with Texas.”
Of the three remaining clinics, one is in Madison and two are in Milwaukee. Someone in the northern part of the state has to drive hours to reach a clinic.
The distance is exacerbated by the state’s decades-old mandatory 24-hour waiting period. Under this law, patients have to wait at least a full day before they can receive an abortion.
“The clinics try their best to get patients a next-day appointment, but that’s often very difficult as their capacity for patients is very limited. They are struggling to keep up with demand,” says Cussen.
She says government-mandated restrictions and overburdened clinics present excessive hardships for women, particularly low-income women. Many Wisconsinites seeking abortions now travel to Minnesota. But it is difficult for low-income women to get crucial support services when traveling out-of-state.
“A woman from Door County now has to make two trips all the way down to Milwaukee. She has to find someone to cover her shift twice, needs to find transportation twice, and someone to provide childcare twice — because most people who get an abortion already have at least one child. She has to do this all twice,” says Cussen.
It is a pretty disheartening reality for a pro-choice Madisonian. I saw several people post general messages of despair and anger on social media. But, most of all, I saw that pro-choice people felt powerless. I asked Cussen what pro-choice Dane County residents can do to help people in the rest of the state.
“That’s where our program, Patient Stays Wisconsin, comes in. We provide women seeking abortion care with safe, secure private housing in the Madison area through the waiting period,” says Cussen.
While there are other programs that offer to pay hotel rooms for women receiving abortions, Patient Stays Wisconsin puts people up in the homes of volunteer families.
“The point of the program is to provide hospitality, provide patients with a supportive environment. Hotel rooms can be a very lonely environment, so we want to provide support to patients in what is often a very stressful couple of days,” says Cussen.
As of right now, Patient Stays Wisconsin doesn’t need any additional volunteer host families.
“We had an amazing show of support from the Madison community. We currently have about 18 families enrolled. I was really worried we wouldn’t get enough hosts, but I was shocked at how many families signed up immediately,” says Cussen.
Where NARAL needs help is in getting the word out to women in the rest of the state, particularly northern Wisconsin, that these housing services are available.
“Madison so often is a town of transplants. They have connections, networks with other places in the state or the country where they may have lived at some point in their lives. I want people in Madison and Dane County to go to their friends, their families elsewhere in the state and let them know that services are available,” says Cussen.
I asked Cussen what pro-choice people can do to change the conversation. After all, the Appleton clinic is being shuttered because of security concerns.
“Be proud of your pro-choice stance. Make it visible. Get that pro-choice Wisconsin bumper sticker and have those conversations in a vocal way,” says Cussen.
NARAL is also encouraging more people to join the organization and is looking for Madison-area volunteers to help canvass and do other work for the November elections.
“What we are doing is getting out of Dane County and going to critical election sites in the center of the state,” says Cussen. “We’ll be looking to help some candidates who will be strong champions of women’s rights.”