Wisconsin Examiner

Abortion Advocates, Opponents Unite on Policies to Address Root Causes 

Wisconsin 14 back extending Medicaid postpartum, paid family leave and more.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Apr 29th, 2024 12:32 pm
Proposals from the 14 Wisconsin residents, brought together to come up with consensus solutions on abortion, arrived at proposals designed to address the economic, health, and education disparities that can lead to people choose abortion. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

Proposals from the 14 Wisconsin residents, brought together to come up with consensus solutions on abortion, arrived at proposals designed to address the economic, health, and education disparities that can lead to people choose abortion. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

MADISON, Wis. — The Starts With Us civic experiment on abortion began with a hypothesis that was reflected in the session’s first working title: Abortion Access & Limits.

Can a group of strangers find common ground on one of the most divisive issues in America?

Can a group of strangers find common ground on one of the most divisive issues in America?

And the experiment’s results, following heated discussions among 14 Wisconsin residents with divergent abortion beliefs, are reflected in the session’s final title: Abortion & Family Well-Being, whose just-released five proposed consensus solutions are designed to address the economic, health, and education disparities that can lead people to choose abortion. The group ultimately could not come to any consensus about abortion itself.

But they came very close.

Shortly before Starts With Us went live with its public feedback period on Wednesday, participant Dr. Kristin Lyerly experienced what facilitator Mariah Levison had throughout this session described as heartburn.

The OB-GYN and abortion provider told States Newsroom she couldn’t sign off on the final language of what would have been a sixth proposal titled, “Keep abortion available when a woman is experiencing a life-threatening medical risk.” She said she took issue with some of the non-medical terms like “unborn child,” but her bigger concern was that the proposal used Wisconsin’s definition of a life-threatening medical risk, which she said is poorly defined and does not explicitly include mental health emergencies.

“As a physician … I do this in practice, and everybody else is just talking about the theory of it,” said Lyerly, who has since stepped away from the Starts With Us project because her recently launched congressional campaign conflicts with its nonprofit status. “When I’m taking care of my patients, I’m focused on, what does my patient need medically right now? Not, hey, can you Google what current Wisconsin law says about when a mother’s life is in danger?” Starts With Us communications manager Tori Larned told States Newsroom that despite high-level consensus on this issue, several participants — both who support and oppose abortion access — disagreed with this proposal’s final language, so they’ve scrapped it for now with the potential to revisit in the near future.

“For some, the language is still too permissive and for others it’s too restrictive,” Larned said in an email. “Citizen Solutions is about bringing more nuance to what is often a binary, overly simplistic conversation.”

Lyerly said she is excited about the proposals the group did achieve consensus on and the connections she made with people who disagree with her. But she remains firm in her view that a medical procedure shouldn’t be narrowly regulated.

“I think we made some important headway, and I think that the fact that we were not able to address the pressing issue of abortion itself really emphasizes how complicated this problem is, and how it belongs in the realm of medical practice, not politics,” Lyerly said. “It’s really hard to find that middle ground because there isn’t necessarily middle ground that applies universally. It’s a personal issue for you that affects your personal self and your personal family.”

Several of the participants on either side of the abortion access divide told States Newsroom that this civic experiment motivated them to keep engaging in discussions about abortion with people they disagree with. A couple said they were disappointed with the ultimate results. And some expressed improved understanding in the other’s point of view, but no major shifts in thinking.

“Initially, I just felt that, how could you want to kill a baby inside your womb? How could you ever come to that conclusion?” said participant Jeff Davis, 76, who has worked with crisis pregnancy centers for women who are contemplating abortion. “From just some of the experiences of people who were there who viewed things differently than I do, I could see why a person could come to those conclusions. And so even though I didn’t change my view, it’s like, okay, now how can these concerns be addressed so that a person would want to choose life?”

Davis also told States Newsroom that he was among those abortion opponents who initially agreed that pregnancy termination should be allowed to preserve the life of the woman but could not agree to include mental distress as part of that definition. The semi-retired bovine veterinarian said his reasoning revolves around the qualitative nature of mental distress.

“It seems to me that those who are pro-abortion want to set the bar very low,” Davis said. “As a result, almost every woman could claim mental distress as a reason for being able to have an abortion.”

Participant Ali Muldrow, the executive director of the abortion fund WMF Wisconsin, said she ultimately thinks theirs is a progressive set of policy proposals in what it doesn’t include: abortion-ban exceptions for rape and incest.

“The fact that we actually didn’t agree on an exception for rape and incest I think is a win,” Muldrow said. “We’re not oversimplifying hugely traumatic experiences as if they can be easily identified, proven, and used to access health care. We didn’t take the bait of compassion with a condition of extreme brutality. That’s something you’re seeing around the country right now and it’s really dangerous.”

She said that for her the group’s dynamics reflect what she sees in the U.S., that there is a majority broadly on the side of abortion access despite their diverse personal views, and a minority (in this case five white Christians) advocating for limits because of deeply held religious beliefs.

“When you pair people who represent 80% of the population with people who represent kind of a specific religious perspective and pretend that those sides are equal, while also failing to kind of acknowledge that one of those groups of people has had historically more power than the other group of people, it creates a pretty complex dynamic,” Muldrow said.

Abortion opponents also expressed disappointment at what they saw as an imbalance of abortion perspectives. Kateri Klingele said that ahead of the final session held in April she acted as spokesperson for the five abortion opponents, and said they would refuse to consider an abortion exception related to fetal health diagnoses. Lyerly noted that three of the nine abortion-access supporters were absent for the final in-person debate. Heather Martell and Ramona Williams were absent because of personal issues, and Monique Minkens started feeling sick and had to leave.

The proposed consensus solutions on abortion and family well-being

This group of 14 Wisconsinites live all across the state, including Milwaukee, Rock, Chippewa, Door, Brown, Grant, and Dane counties. But now residents from the entire state – and the nation – can vote and comment on the group’s proposals for state lawmakers to potentially consider. The proposals were evaluated by 14 health, legal, and policy experts with divergent views on abortion access, three of whom (a “Catholic marriage and family expert,” “pro-life OB/GYN,” and “professor of educational policy studies”) chose to remain anonymous.

In brief, they would:

“We envision a world where Wisconsinites have greater support for planning and sustaining their families,” the participants write in their joint vision statement. “Unintended pregnancies and poor fetal and maternal health outcomes are experienced disproportionately by women of color and lower-income women. … Better community and social supports — including for children and families, as well as during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period — help those who become pregnant feel like they have options for continuing their pregnancy.”

Starts With Us head of programs Ashley Phillips said that after the public feedback period concludes on May 31, the participants will find out which proposals got the most support and then evaluate potential next steps, including bringing them to state lawmakers. She noted that for their first session, on gun rights and safety launched last year in Tennessee, more than 30,000 Tennesseans weighed in on eight proposals and five majority-supported proposals were ultimately brought to the state legislature.

Phillips said Starts With Us absorbed a lot of participants’ feedback (including hiring a mental-health counselor to help guide the final session in April) as they continue to iterate their Citizen Solutions sessions throughout the country. She said the results of this particular experiment, on abortion in Wisconsin, make her optimistic.

“If you look at the five [proposals], they’re much more about root causes of abortion,” Phillips said. “That’s the conversation that this group is trying to have. How can we expand the conversation on abortion, so it’s not just about weeks, and it’s not just about exceptions and carve-outs and bans and not bans and morality or not?”

Many of the participants said this experience was hard, but for most it was worthwhile.

“I think it’s important to hear where people are,” Muldrow said. “As important as the areas where we agree, I think the areas where we disagree are deeply important. If you want there to be this kind of happy Kumbaya ending to a conversation about abortion with people with very different beliefs, it’s a little disappointing that one of the more pronounced elements of that conversation is where people disagree, but people were able to disagree and stay in that space together. I think there’s a lot to learn from that.”

On abortion, advocates and opponents unite on policies to address root causes  was originally published by Wisconsin Examiner.

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