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The Wisconsin Supreme Court election has given hope to the state's medical community

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Wisconsin now, where Democrats are celebrating a victory - Judge Janet Protasiewicz winning the state's open Supreme Court seat and thus flipping control of the court to liberals for the first time in 15 years. That has implications for all kinds of things, including abortion. After the Dobbs decision last year in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a Wisconsin law from 1849 went into effect. It makes performing an abortion a felony except to save the life of the pregnant person. And it has changed how medical professionals do their jobs.

KRISTIN LYERLY: I don't feel comfortable practicing in Wisconsin, so I am practicing in Minnesota, which is why I'm driving right now.

KELLY: That is Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an OB-GYN who lives in Green Bay. We caught her yesterday in her car on her very long commute home.

LYERLY: When Dobbs happened, you know, I decided that the best thing, the safest thing for me and my family was for me to work two or three weeks a month in Minnesota. I'm coming home from a 10-day stint.

KELLY: Well, she is now back in Wisconsin, so we have reached out again. Dr. Lyerly, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LYERLY: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit more what it's been like for you these last 10 months, working in reproductive health with laws being changed at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then this Wisconsin law kicking in?

LYERLY: It's been a nightmare. It's been a nightmare for me and my colleagues and my patients - really, for all of us. As soon as Dobbs happened and we reverted back to the 1849 criminal abortion ban, there was so much chaos and confusion and fear and misinformation. We didn't know what kinds of procedures and care we could provide. People didn't know what kind of care they could get. And although we've clarified much of that, there still is so much confusion that it continues to cause problems every single day.

KELLY: When you say it has been a nightmare for your colleagues, what's that conversation like with doctors who may still be practicing in Wisconsin as OB-GYNs?

LYERLY: Well, on one level, people who are seeing patients every single day are faced with additional complexities and barriers to care, things that they're having to do to make sure that they are in compliance with this law, if it truly is able to be enforced. On another level, they're thinking about, if this law continues to be on the books, can they continue to practice here? I've spoken with a number of colleagues who practice in underserved areas who love their jobs, and they love the people that they serve, but they wonder how long they can stay there. And to be honest, they have resignation letters ready for if they need to go.

KELLY: What about for patients, your patients? Where are they going right now if they need abortion care?

LYERLY: Most of them are going to Illinois because that is the closest state to where our population centers are in Madison and Milwaukee. Some are traveling to Minnesota. Some are traveling further away. But many are not receiving the care that they need because they can't overcome the barriers - the cost, transportation, additional child care - many of these people have kids at home - time away from work. Any barrier to care is causing problems for people to access fundamental reproductive health care.

KELLY: When you heard the news this week that Judge Protasiewicz would soon become Justice Protasiewicz and the implications for abortion in your state, what went through your mind?

LYERLY: I couldn't even allow myself to believe it for about 30 minutes until I checked on a number of different resources to make sure that it was true because this is what we had been hoping for. Doctors across the state, in rural areas and urban areas, neurologists, radiologists, pediatricians, every specialty - we've really come together to help people understand how much this is affecting the house of medicine. And all of this effort that we've been putting out has not only brought us together but, I think, has given us hope. But we've all been afraid to dream that this could really happen and that we could get - we could be headed in the right direction again. So that realization that this truly could put Wisconsin back on that path to being a healthy state again, where we can truly take care of our patients was overwhelming. To be honest with you, Mary Louise, I burst into tears. It was - wow, just wow.

KELLY: And to circle back to your area of expertise, to medicine - I mean, I get why this is of extreme interest for an OB-GYN. Like, why - when you say neurologists care, that doctors across the state are in your corner. Why?

LYERLY: It's so much more than just abortion care. I think that because abortion has been such a political issue, we tend to think of it as something that lives on this isolated island. But the truth is, abortion care is integrated into every part of women's health care, from miscarriage management to helping somebody achieve a pregnancy, someone who's been struggling with infertility, to managing a complicated pregnancy, contraception - I mean, really, all of those things. And especially when we're dealing with complicated pregnancies, we often have to send our patients to people like neurologists, cardiologists, pulmonologists, radiologists.

So we're consulting with the entire house of medicine to help our highest-risk patients have the most successful pregnancy outcomes possible. And they, too, understand how the system is currently failing pregnant people at all levels. And not only that, but in a state where we are criminalizing care, where politicians are inserting themselves in the doctor-patient relationship and threatening felony charges, threatening to put doctors in jail for truly taking care of our patients, what's next? So it's our imperative to stand up and make sure that people understand that we went to medical school to take care of each other. And this is just a different way that we are taking care of the people of Wisconsin.

KELLY: What will this mean to you if the law currently in effect in Wisconsin is overturned? Will you return to practicing medicine full time in Wisconsin?

LYERLY: It is my dream to come back home and take care of my patients here in Wisconsin. I'm a sixth-generation Wisconsinite. My whole family lives here. My kids are here. My patients are here. There's nothing I want more than to come back here and start taking care of Wisconsinites again.

KELLY: Doctor Kristin Lyerly, an OB-GYN in Green Bay, Wis. She is also with the Committee to Protect Health Care's Reproductive Freedom Task Force. And she's one of many voices we're hearing from as the national conversation on abortion continues. Dr. Lyerly, thanks.

LYERLY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEX'S "GET IN YR SQUADS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.