Madison abortion rights advocates continue community care while preparing for the unknown
by Erin McGroarty
Rachel Dyer was 15 years old when she had an abortion. She was a teenager living in rural Wisconsin and recalls feeling completely sure of her decision.
“I did not want to be pregnant, I did not want to give birth. Having an abortion was exactly the right decision for me,” she says.
Dyer also recalls being told how to talk about her abortion, or rather how to not talk about it.
“I held a lot of that stigma and shame that was put on me despite feeling like this was the best choice for me,” she says.
Now, with the Supreme Court’s action in overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022 and a centuries-old abortion ban still on the books in Wisconsin, Dyer feels strongly that it’s her job to fight for other peoples’ rights to access abortion.
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 ruling protecting abortion rights on a federal level, Wisconsin was one of four states in the country that had a near-total abortion ban still in effect from before Roe’s time.
Currently, all abortions are banned unless the life of the mother is considered at risk — a vague medical guidance that few professionals or legal scholars have been able to clarify. Critics say the law is a remnant of centuries past. Literally, in this case. The law dates back to before the Civil War and before women were afforded the right to vote.
With state administrators calling for Wisconsin’s law to be overturned — or at least modified — and conservative state lawmakers vowing to keep it in place, community activists and caregivers are doing focusing on individual support and advocacy in the interim as they strive to help Wisconsinites in need of information, access and care.
A legal landscape in flux
When the Supreme Court overturned legal protections for abortion access that had served as precedent for nearly 50 years, protests erupted across the country as conservative states quickly put into place harsh restrictions on abortion care. The most restrictive was in Oklahoma — a complete ban on abortion after six weeks, which is typically before a woman knows she is pregnant.
Days after the court overruled Roe and Wisconsin’s 1849 law was back in effect, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court seeking to throw out the 173-year-old ban.
According to a series of polls conducted by the Marquette Law School over the past decade, an average 60% of Wisconsinites have supported abortion being legal in all or most cases.
Another poll from September 2022 showed approximately 68% of respondents think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The same poll showed that 61% opposed the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
According to a poll from Spectrum News and Siena College, 72% of respondents said the state should replace the 1849 law.
Kaul’s argument is two-pronged. First, he says, the law is simply too old and out of date to be considered relevant, citing a legal doctrine called desuetude, which states a law can be tossed if it has not been used in a long-enough period — in this case, the 50 years that Roe was in place.
Second, Kaul argues that a series of laws seeking to regulate legal abortion passed by state lawmakers during the days of Roe, which contradict core elements of the 1849 ban, should be considered law instead.
Kaul filed the lawsuit at the direction of Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who won reelection to a second term in November 2022.
In early December 2022, a group of prosecutors asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, extending the timeline for resolution.
Community care continues
Dyer is now a Ph.D candidate in the UW-Madison Department of Counseling Psychology and a member of the campus research group CORE, also known as the Collaborative for Reproductive Equity, that works to increase education and knowledge surrounding all elements of reproductive rights, including abortion. The group also provides policymakers and community leaders with information and data on current reproductive rights issues.
Dyer sees a deep connection between her counseling training and advocacy work and thinks mental health providers need to be able to provide a more nuanced approach to counseling those who may have a complex set of feelings about their abortion experience.
Being able to talk about the stigma and shame Dyer felt after her abortion is something counselors need to be educated in how to handle, she says.
“This is something that is not talked about. And if it is, it’s talked about in very narrow ways,” Dyer says. “And we need to be equipping mental health professionals and the general public in more nuanced ways to talk about abortion, so that everyone can feel like supported in whatever their experience was, and not like they’re being excluded from political discourse.”
Outside of her work on campus, Dyer is executive director of an organization called Exhale, Pro-Voice, a national volunteer-run organization that provides a free textline for individuals to receive support after they have an abortion.
With well-known, national organizations like Planned Parenthood in the crosshairs of conservative politicians and those seeking to further limit abortion access, many advocates are thinking more on the local side of things.
Madison Lands is a community caregiver and abortion rights advocate also based in Madison. Lands, who has a dual master’s degree in social work and public health, differentiates advocacy work from caregiving in her mind, particularly within the realm of abortion care. Her community care work is micro while she considers advocacy to be macro.
Both have an important place, but Lands says she has found her home within the realm of abortion work in providing care for individuals.
“Because a lot of the work that I do through this is on kind of a one-to-one basis, in that I’m directly working with people and that is really around helping people have a better abortion experience,” Lands says.
This care goes hand in hand with advocacy work, however, Lands adds.
In the current legal landscape surrounding abortion access, particularly in Wisconsin where most abortions are currently banned, Lands communicates and works alongside advocacy organizations to continue to share information for those seeking abortion care and how to access it safely.
Lands works with an abortion doula network called the Wisconsin Abortion Support Network, largely based in Madison but also in Milaukee and Sheboygan that helps people seeking abortions feel supported and cared for throughout their experience. The most common public understanding of doula work surrounds birth and the emotional support provided by a doula to a person giving birth, but the term has been expanded to encompass various other areas of emotional support during trauma or difficult situations.
This care can take many forms but the core goal is keeping the person at the center of the care, Lands says. This could mean accompanying someone to an abortion appointment and acting as a companion during the procedure, such as being available through text or chat if someone wants an on-call support network during an abortion or providing home care to someone having a medication abortion at their home.
Lands and the others in the care network begin working with those receiving care by asking the person what their needs are and then working to meet those needs in the best way for the person experiencing the abortion. The shift in legality of abortion care hasn’t changed Lands’ dedication to this care.
“The reason I do my job is because I want people to have better reproductive health access, and I want people to have bodily autonomy,” Lands says.
Featured photo by Gayatri Malhotr on Unsplash.