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Judge hears arguments in abortion lawsuit

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • April 24, 2014 - 2:40 PM

MADISON, Wis. — A state attorney urged a judge Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to void statutes that require doctors to decide if a woman is consenting voluntarily to an abortion and to be present when the woman gets abortion-inducing drugs.

Planned Parenthood sued Dane County Circuit Court last year alleging the statues are too vague. Doctors don't know how they're supposed to tell if a woman is lying and don't know whether they need to be present when the drugs are handed out or when the woman ingests them, the organization contends.

Assistant Attorney General Maria Lazar told Judge Richard Niess during oral arguments that no real dispute exists. Planned Parenthood and the state reached an agreement on how to interpret the statutes during a short-lived federal challenge last year.

"There's no controversy," she told the judge. "Everyone is saying the same thing."

Planned Parenthood's attorney, Susan Crawford, countered that U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb rejected the agreement. She said the deal isn't binding on anyone and the organization's doctors still need clarity.

"(The agreement) was not a promise or a contract," she said.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a GOP bill in April 2012 that requires physicians to determine whether a woman is consenting to an abortion freely and give her information on domestic abuse services if they suspect someone is forcing her into it. Violators would be subject to forfeitures of up to $10,000.

The measure also requires doctors to perform a physical exam on the woman at least a day before the abortion and be in the room when abortion-inducing drugs are given to her. Violators of those provisions could face up to 42 months in prison and $10,000 in fines.

Backers argue the bill protects women from pressure from husbands, boyfriends and friends to have an abortion and prevents doctors from consulting with patients using webcams. Opponents contend the law hurts the patient-physician relationship.

Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit in federal court in Madison in December 2012 arguing their doctors had stopped providing abortion-inducing drugs because they were unsure how to comply with the law.

About a month and a half later, state Department of Justice attorneys, all the state's districts attorneys and Planned Parenthood reached a stipulation that providers who make a good faith effort to determine if a woman is consenting freely aren't liable if the woman is lying. The stipulation also said providers need to be present only when drugs are dispensed.

Crabb rejected the stipulation, however, and questioned whether she had authority to rule on how to interpret a state law. Planned Parenthood refiled the case in state court.

Niess in April 2013 temporarily prohibited prosecutors from charging doctors who aren't present for ingestion. He also temporarily prohibited anyone from suing providers if a patient alleges she was coerced into an abortion after the fact. Those orders remain in effect.

Niess quizzed both attorneys for an hour on Thursday. He adjourned the hearing without ruling from the bench. He has 90 days to issue a written decision.

"If I were an appeals court," he said at one point, "I'd kick (the case) straight to the (state) Supreme Court."

© 2014 Star Tribune