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Can 14 strangers from Wisconsin help America find common ground on abortion?


Can 14 strangers from Wisconsin help America find common ground on abortion?

Apr 24, 2024 | 3:05 pm ET
By Sofia Resnick
The Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion and Family Well Being has brought together 14 residents from a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints to create proposals for state lawmakers on abortion. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

The Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion and Family Well Being has brought together 14 residents from a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints to create proposals for state lawmakers on abortion. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

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?

This story is the first in a series about a group of Wisconsin residents trying to come up with policies to address abortion and its root causes that could be applied nationwide.

MADISON, Wis. — Thomas Lang, 61, is white, deeply Catholic and opposes abortion. 

“Each one of us has a beginning, and that unique beginning … is conception,” Lang said. “And I would go back to the lack of personhood in slavery and how that personhood can be manipulated. … And I’m saying, no, that child has rights. … And yet we are going to allow for the killing, murder, because of this, this and this.”

Anti-abortion activists and legal scholars in the U.S. increasingly argue that denying the “personhood” of all unborn life is akin to slavery. It’s a comment that doesn’t sit well with the women of color in this room of people with different beliefs about abortion, including some with their own traumatic pregnancy experiences. The women repeatedly point out that white supremacy and racism are well rooted in every aspect of American life, including reproductive health care.

Ali Muldrow, who is Black, a mother of three girls, and runs an abortion fund in Wisconsin, told the group that the so-called father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, invented tools like the speculum and surgical techniques after torturing enslaved women in horse stables. As someone who faced painful and medically complex pregnancies, Muldrow, 36, pointed out repeatedly that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and more likely to experience criminalization because of their pregnancies. She said she was temporarily jailed while pregnant with one of her daughters after being beaten by an abusive boyfriend.  

Muldrow’s first pregnancy was at 16, and she hired a lawyer to be able to have an abortion as a minor. She said she doesn’t regret that abortion or the one she had at 18, or her subsequent decisions to parent despite the varying medical, social, and economic perils she sometimes faced. But she’s firm that these were her decisions to make, and rejected Lang’s personhood argument. 

“Our personhood is invalidated every day,” Muldrow said. “My health matters, and it’s a factor throughout the entirety of a pregnancy. My body as a tool for breeding, like a cattle animal that can be bred and forced to have kids, is something I’m really against, because I’m against slavery.”

In this room at a historic space in Wisconsin’s capital city, 14 people from around the state have been recruited to find common ground on abortion amid their deeply divergent stances. The Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion and Family Well Being is an experiment designed by Starts With Us, a nonprofit civic organization whose mission is to try to effect change through citizen solutions and show that people on opposite sides of controversial issues can come to a mutual understanding when they engage in guided mediation.

Founded in 2021, Starts With Us launched its first project last year on gun rights and safety in Tennessee, following a deadly school shooting in Nashville. KIND Snacks founder and “Shark Tank” entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky has said that, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, he was motivated to co-found this nonprofit to address toxic polarization and extremist thinking. Other founding partners include renowned chef José Andrés, civil rights activist Bernice King, and hip-hop artist will.i.am. 

For its second session, held for three days in Madison in December 2023 and for a final day this month, Starts With Us invited 14 Wisconsinites to tackle what has become a galvanizing political issue ever since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights nearly two years ago. 

“To us, the opportunity to build and to actually create solutions is the brass ring,” Starts With Us CEO Tom Fishman told States Newsroom. “But at minimum to have transformative experiences for 14 people in a room and then tell that story is such that it gives people hope and confidence … that at minimum we don’t have to … reduce each other as a caricature list of talking points on two sides of an issue that’s sold to us by algorithms and cable news.”

After months of processing the discussions from the sessions with health, legal and policy experts, Starts With Us today unveiled what the group achieved consensus on. Wisconsin residents can now rank and comment on the proposals online. At the end of a monthlong public feedback period, the participants will see which proposals have majority support and evaluate next steps, including potentially bringing some or all of the proposals to state lawmakers for consideration. Starts With Us is hopeful these consensus solutions could eventually serve as a policy model for other states, representing what the most polarized minds on abortion can agree on with respect to improving family well-being.

Why Wisconsin

The team chose Wisconsin because of its dynamic politics — a swing state with a Democratic governor, a GOP-controlled legislature, and a liberal-leaning state supreme court — and because it’s one of more than a dozen states that banned abortion in the wake of the historic Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Abortion services resumed in Wisconsin last year, after a Dane County judge ruled that an 1849 feticide law does not apply to abortion, but litigation continues, as do further attempts to restrict abortion. Earlier this year the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a 14-week abortion ban that failed to advance in the Senate. As of now, abortion can be performed until 20 weeks post-fertilization.

Ali Muldrow, who is a mother of three girls and runs an abortion fund in Wisconsin, told the group about how Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than white women and spoke of her own difficult pregnancies. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)
Ali Muldrow, who is a mother of three girls and runs an abortion fund in Wisconsin, told the group about how Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than white women and spoke of her own difficult pregnancies. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision attempted to reconcile biological complexities and diverse moral worldviews regarding pregnancy, developing life, and reproductive autonomy. Dobbs changed that by letting states make their own abortion laws. And in many states that has meant conservative lawmakers pursuing hardline restrictions and even resurrecting laws from the 1800s, as in Arizona. These policy changes have broadly impacted maternal health care throughout the U.S.

A majority of voters post-Dobbs are showing they don’t want strict abortion bans. Already in six blue, purple, and red states voters have preserved abortion rights directly on the ballot, and about a dozen more are trying to do the same in November. Spurred by the fall of Roe, some have gotten into politics, like Wisconsin participants Heather Martell, now a Chippewa Falls alderman, and Dr. Kristin Lyerly, who this month launched a bid for Congress as a Democrat in Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District (she has since stepped away from Starts With Us because her campaign conflicts with its nonprofit status). Lyerly is among several OB-GYNS around the U.S. who have sued their states for criminalizing pregnancy termination, which they believe cannot be divorced from standard medical care. 

Starts With Us head of programs Ashley Phillips said they recruited individuals based on their nuanced public views on abortion and their willingness to come to the table with opponents on this issue. She said hundreds of Wisconsinites were contacted but many never responded. The selected participants were each paid travel expenses and a $900 honorarium for four days of their time and effort. 

The chosen 14 consist of 11 women and three men. Five (three women, two men) mostly oppose abortion; they are white, range in age from 25 to 76, and identify as Catholic or Protestant. The remaining nine include four Black women, one Hispanic woman, and range in age from mid-30s to mid-70s, and identify as Unitarian, Jewish, and atheist. There’s a lot of overlap in the whole group. Several have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poverty. Most are parents.

How abortion views are born 

From day one there is resounding agreement around the table that the current health, economic, and legal systems do not work for many families in Wisconsin or the country at large. Roe and Dobbs flipped the overall legality of abortion, but neither federal court decision addressed the underlying economic and social factors that, according to reproductive-health researchers at the University of California San Francisco, lead many to choose abortion — nor did they address the limited reproductive, prenatal and maternal care access around the U.S.

But the larger debate in the room, and outside of it, is who gets to make decisions in a given pregnancy: the person who is pregnant or the state? And at what point should the developing life be protected from termination?

Though life-of-the-mother exceptions exist in most of the current abortion bans, stories about women being denied health care pervade around the country. Patients who have been able to travel and survive their experiences have sued. On Wednesday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about whether doctors should be protected from prosecution under federal law if they provide abortion care to a patient in an emergency, even in a state with an abortion ban. 

Also becoming more pervasive are stories about women denied abortions despite a fetus’s fatal anomalies. The same weekend the group met in Madison, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a court order that would have allowed Texan Kate Cox to terminate a non-viable pregnancy, forcing Cox to travel out of state. It’s a story that 37-year-old alderman and legal assistant Heather Martell is unfortunately familiar with.

As Martell explained to the other participants, in 2021, she went to her 19th week anatomy scan excited to see what would have been her second living child. But the ultrasound and subsequent detailed scans uncovered a rare disorder known as VACTERL association, which can affect multiple body systems and cause abnormalities in the vertebrae, anus, heart, trachea, esophagus, kidneys, and limbs. The disorder carries varying degrees of severity depending on how many systems are affected, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Martell said her baby’s case was incredibly rare in that it impacted nearly every part of his body. It was the worst possible prognosis: “incompatible with life.” 

“This child would have needed open heart surgery before he was a year old, but wouldn’t have been able to have the surgery, because he would have been in late stages of kidney failure, having only one undersized kidney,” Martell told States Newsroom in an email after the sessions had concluded. 

After a second opinion, Martell and her husband, who is Catholic and was at that time against abortion, sought a termination to spare the suffering of the baby they would name Oliver, which she learned was imminent if he continued to develop. They had to leave the state, because Wisconsin restricts abortion after 20 weeks.

“I Googled it, and I found studies that said the fetal nervous system develops fully by 24 to 26 weeks,” she told the group during their first day introductory discussions. “It gave me 14 days to get an abortion, or kill myself.”

Martell traveled to a Minnesota clinic, where she faced anti-abortion protesters telling her she had other options and where the type of abortion procedure she wanted — an induced stillbirth — was unavailable. That meant she couldn’t hold and bury Oliver, which remains a traumatic memory. 

 Her pregnancy and life experiences solidified Martell’s belief that reproductive health decisions should be left to patients and their families.

But it’s all about the child for Laura Brown, a 61-year-old chief financial officer for a nonprofit in West Allis, who’s on the board of an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center.

“A concern I have is that in almost every discussion I don’t hear any mention of the child,’’ said Brown on the second day of the session. 

“When I talk about abortion, I am talking about the child,” Martell said. “I’m talking about my child.”

Martell’s two previous pregnancies, when she was 19 and then 21, were marked first by a life-threatening miscarriage, and then by intimate partner abuse and extreme pressure to have an abortion, which she resisted. She told States Newsroom it was difficult to hear some of the statements from the abortion opponents at the sessions, including the implication that she didn’t consider the life of the child in her abortion decision.

“We would have had to pay millions of dollars out of pocket for Oliver to suffer and die. And in the meantime, our living child, Jack, would have become a glass child,” Martell said. “It isn’t easy to watch someone die. It’s even harder when it is your own child and sibling. I was not going to allow that to happen to my family. To be accused of not taking the child into consideration when I discuss abortion is a slap in the face, because I did.”

Brown’s view on abortion is also shaped by trauma. 

At 20, her affair with a married man culminated in an unplanned pregnancy that she said she felt pressured to end. The man didn’t offer any support, she said, and though she didn’t want to end the pregnancy, she didn’t see other options. Brown alleges that a counselor at the Planned Parenthood sensed she was not sure about her decision and tricked her into believing she had an ectopic pregnancy that was not viable. 

After the procedure began, Brown said she asked the doctor to stop and recalled him telling her, “You should have thought of that before.’’ The experience made her feel violated and eventually suicidal and informed her unbending view that “abortion is not health care,” she said. 

Like Martell, Brown still mourns the baby that would never be born.

Brown said she turned to God and is now a regional coordinator for Silent No More Awareness Campaign, which shares stories of those who say they were harmed by abortion, and is affiliated with the national anti-abortion-rights group Priests for Life. She told States Newsroom that years ago, her daughter went into labor at 26 weeks and the medical care she received allowed her baby to be born very small but healthy. These life experiences have made it difficult for Brown to approve any reason for abortion, including if there’s a health risk, fetal anomaly, or the pregnant person is a child or victim of sexual abuse.

“Because abortion is traumatic, it’s also physically traumatic to force a young person to go through that. And then what happens is that the young person is a victim, and then they actually turn into a perpetrator,” Brown told States Newsroom in an interview. “Giving birth is less traumatic than having an abortion and later realizing what you did.”

The majority of those who oppose abortion in this group believe in the concept of “personhood” for all unborn children, starting at the early stages of fertilization. It is the principle behind banning some forms of contraception that can prevent implantation, as well as in vitro fertilization, which since the Alabama Supreme Court’s controversial ruling that frozen embryos are equivalent to human children, has proven to be very politically unpopular. 

Martell told States Newsroom that hearing Brown’s story helped her understand how someone becomes an anti-abortion-rights opponent.

“For me it was very interesting to see someone who regretted it, and how easily my life view could have been shaped by that one choice,” Martell said. “Had I not experienced that [pregnancy] loss in 2006, in 2008, I might have succumbed to that kind of peer pressure [to have an abortion], and who knows, I could have ended up like Laura, living with that shame and that regret. And if Laura had had a situation where she had put her foot down and said …  I’m having this kid, maybe she would have been pro-choice now.”

Brown said she agrees with “separation” of the embryo or fetus in life-threatening cases such as ectopic pregnancies, but she believes abortion is over-recommended and not always necessary to save maternal life. “With our medical advancements, high risk pregnancies can definitely be mitigated and cared for.”

But in this group, no one understands the medical nuance of pregnancy better than Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a white, 54-year-old OB-GYN and mother of four who has provided abortions throughout her career. When she herself needed a second-trimester abortion procedure after miscarrying years ago, she told the group she couldn’t find a doctor in Madison qualified to perform what she described as a complex and politicized procedure. Lyerly now commutes to Minnesota for work; she stopped performing abortions in her home state in 2023 while Wisconsin’s abortion ban was briefly in effect. 

When gestational limits or narrow health exceptions are proposed, Lyerly consistently pointed out that things happen progressively in pregnancy and that each case is different. “We’re philosophizing. We’re not in the middle of it like my patients are,” she said. “When in the middle of it, you sometimes do things you wouldn’t expect.”

The only other doctor in the room is Jeff Davis, a white, semi-retired bovine veterinarian from southwest Wisconsin who has been involved with crisis pregnancy centers. He said his earliest defining moment on this issue happened on his family’s farm in Illinois.

“My whole pro-life view on life began when I was like 12 years old, and my hand was small enough to get inside the vagina of a ewe to pull out some twin baby lambs,” Davis told States Newsroom. “It was so exhilarating to be able to do that because if not, she might have had dead lambs.”

Davis believes that terminating pregnancies at any stage is wrong because it ends life. His belief was solidified by the birth of his children, the viewing of his first grandchild on an ultrasound, and his Catholic faith.

‘No magic solutions’

But when given the hypothetical, the majority of Americans take a middle position, explained Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University in Milwaukee, one of three subject-matter experts to address the group that weekend. The Marquette Law School Poll director has been polling Wisconsinites on abortion for years, and he said the overall numbers haven’t changed much. 

Marquette’s most recent poll, from June 2023, finds that 32% of those polled believe abortion should be legal in all cases, 34% in most, 25% illegal in most, and 6% illegal in all. 

A few in the group take that middle view, like Jacob VandenPlas, a white veteran and farmer who runs a rehabilitation farm for other veterans in Sturgeon Bay and has run for Congress (the same district as Lyerly, but as a Libertarian). The father of two said he thinks abortion should be allowed until approximately 15 weeks gestation and then qualified with exceptions for fetal and maternal health, rape and incest. 

“I don’t believe the government has a place to dictate what someone can and can’t do,” VandenPlas said. “It doesn’t mean I have a disregard for life. I’m not happy about abortions and want to solve the root cause.”

“Morality is so personal; I struggle with assigning it,” said domestic violence advocate Monique Minkens. The 55-year-old Black mother and executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin told the group that she personally opposes abortion later in pregnancy, but that she doesn’t believe in imposing limits. She noted that she has worked with people trying to avoid being tethered to an abuser for life. 

“Late-term abortion, that’s hard,” Minkens said. “I can’t see someone carrying a child, feeling it kicking, and then being given an abortion. And yet I know that there are times when someone says, your child is dead, you’re going to have to push out this child, or your child is going to die as soon as they’re born, or whatever it is, and your life is in danger. I’m not going to pull out my morality on them.”

Abortion polling numbers vary widely, Franklin explained to the group, depending on where people live throughout the state, their politics, their race, their religion, and when presented with real-life circumstances, like Martell’s husband. 

“There’s no magic solutions here,” Franklin said. “I’m not trying to present you with solutions. But what I am trying to do is say we need to understand what the broad public is thinking when they think about these things and get a little bit away from the common impression that we have two monolithic, adamantly opposed groups. … We’re divided, though a majority in almost every measure say they favor legal abortion in at least some circumstances.”

As predicted, the solutions this group ends up with months later are not magical, though they are, the participants will eventually agree, positive steps toward improving reproductive health access and family well being in Wisconsin. They include standardizing and ensuring accuracy in pregnancy options information, and expanding health insurance coverage. The group is almost but ultimately unable to come up with abortion-specific policy agreements. 

But while these participants were still in the thick of debating and trying to see past their own trauma-laced biases and experiences, consensus on this issue seemed far away.

“I think that we’ll go round and round and round, and I don’t know how we reach an understanding,” Minkens said at the end of the second day; on the third they would be expected to agree to a list of proposals. “I’m just thinking about … the history of harm that has happened over the years; it’s always been the Catholic Church or it’s always been a Christian state that has done the harm, and that is where I’m struggling. Your cold dead hands, my cold dead hands, I don’t know where we go from here.”

Tomorrow: The group struggles to find common ground.

Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion and Family Well Being participants

- Laura Brown — A 61-year-old white, Protestant nonprofit chief financial officer from West Allis, who opposes abortion rights.

- Jeff Davis — A 76-year-old white, Catholic semi-retired bovine veterinarian and widower with three daughters and eight grandchildren from southwest Wisconsin, who opposes abortion rights.

- Milly Gonzales — A Hispanic domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking professional in Door County, who supports abortion rights.

- Bria Halama — A white, Catholic clinical mental health counselor in Milwaukee, who opposes abortion rights.

- Kateri Klingele — A 25-year-old white, Catholic clinical mental health professional and mother in Madison, who opposes abortion rights.  

- Thomas Lang — A 61-year-old white, Catholic property manager from Janesville, who opposes abortion rights.

- Dr. Kristin Lyerly — A 54-year-old white OB-GYN, mother of four, and abortion provider from Green Bay. (She has since stepped away from Starts With Us because her campaign conflicts with their nonprofit status.)

- Heather Martell — A 37-year-old white mother, legal assistant, and Chippewa Falls alderman, who supports abortion rights. 

- Kai Gardner Mishlove — A Black grief doula and the director of Jewish Social Services of Madison, who supports abortion rights.

- Patricia McFarland — A 75-year-old white abortion-rights activist, mother, grandmother, and retired college teacher.

- Monique Minkens — A 55-year-old Black executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, who believes abortion should be available to everyone.

- Ali Muldrow — A 36-year-old Black mother of three daughters and the executive director of the abortion fund WMF Wisconsin in Madison.

- Jacob VandenPlas — A 39-year-old white veteran and farmer from Sturgeon Bay, who used to oppose abortion but now believes it should be available with limits later in pregnancy.

- Ramona Williams — A Black mother and regional nonprofit coordinator who supports abortion rights.
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