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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Good health care includes abortion
Departure of women's health provider is a loss for Madison
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I want to write a column to say goodbye to my friend. But it's hard because I can't tell you anything about her.

This warm, compassionate, brilliant woman, beloved by her patients as a local OB/GYN, is Public Enemy #1 for the anti-abortion nuts who have such disproportionate power in our state. If I say anything too specific, it might be used to target her or her family, since, for the last several years, she has had the temerity to provide abortions to Madison women who need them.

Now she has been hired away by Harvard (that much was in the local news) in what Pro-Life Wisconsin laughably counts as a "victory" for its cause. Actually it's nothing but a testament to my friend's professional talent. Planned Parenthood already has another doctor lined up to take her place, and says there will be no interruption in its services. But her departure is a loss for our city.

It's also a reminder that, despite Madison's progressive reputation, in the area of women's health, we are still being pushed around by some mighty backward forces.

The UW-Madison has one of the nation's best training programs in reproductive health care for medical residents, but our state is among the most restrictive when it comes to abortion services.

And now, under pressure from anti-abortion groups, Wisconsin's attorney general is "investigating" whether it is illegal for medical residents to get their high-quality training at Planned Parenthood - since using state funds for training related to abortion would violate state statutes.

"It's an absolute embarrassment for our community if we let these fringe folks who don't even live here determine what options are available to people," says Planned Parenthood's Amanda Harrington.

Harrington is referring to Pro-Life Wisconsin, based in Brookfield, and the well-financed, ultraconservative Alliance Defense Fund, which is based in Arizona.

It's the Arizona group that concocted the idea for Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's "investigation."

In fact, there are no tax dollars involved in medical residents' training at Planned Parenthood, since pro-life lobbyists and legislators have badgered medical faculty and doctors into carefully segregating those funds. The AG and other state officials ought to know that.

"The taxpayer funding issue is a red herring," says Harrington. "Their goal is to make all abortion and all birth control illegal and to end training for doctors.

"These people are not just opposed to abortion, but to all methods of birth control and the whole idea that you would want to space your children and plan your family." And they have managed to make it needlessly complicated to get decent reproductive health care for Madison women.

At present, there are only four sites in the whole state that perform first-trimester abortions - one in Madison, two in Milwaukee and one in Appleton.

In Madison, after much controversy and protest, there is still a gap for women who are between 19 and 24 weeks pregnant. The Madison Surgery Center has not begun performing these procedures, which account for just 3% of abortions. And there is still no doctor in town to help women who find out at their 20-week ultrasound that their pregnancies have tragic complications.

That's why my friend's work was so important. Not only did she provide abortions (and earn the name "abortionist" and "butcher of women" from the nasty groups that took out ads to harass and threaten her), she was a board-certified OB-GYN who delivered babies, counseled women on using birth control, and, through Planned Parenthood, was one of the only doctors in the state low-income women could go to for help if they had an abnormal Pap smear.

Moreover, my friend believed that medical residents in Wisconsin should be able to learn her skills, and helped ensure that they could get that training.

On the other side, we have Pro-Life Wisconsin, which calls the use of birth control pills "embryonic abortion," and which, ominously, has endorsed both Republican candidates for governor.

These candidates, Scott Walker and Mark Neumann, and the groups driving anti-abortion and anti-birth-control policy are way outside the mainstream. Some 98% of women who are sexually active use birth control, and one-third of women have had an abortion by the time they reach age 45.

Yet, thanks to a well-organized minority, we are pushed toward a parallel universe where an empathetic doctor like my friend is demonized, and regular care that should be available to everyone is subject to McCarthyite "investigation" and harassment.

I will miss my friend. I am also happy for her success, and I wish her the best. Most of all, I want to thank her for standing up to the truly awful bad guys and protecting women's health.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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