New nonprofit helps Wisconsinites secure abortion care in Rockford, Illinois

In response to Roe v. Wade reversal, Rockford Family Planning Foundation aims to provide Wisconsin people with abortion access and reproductive healthcare.
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On June 14, 10 days before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and all but eliminated abortion access in Wisconsin, Dr. Dennis Christensen bought a $350,000 building in Rockford, Illinois. The writing had been on the wall long before the May 2 leak that telegraphed the court’s decision, and a consortium of local providers, activists and philanthropists — including Christensen, a mostly retired Milwaukee- and Madison-area gynecologist now in his 80s — had been quietly preparing for months.

“We can no longer sit on our laurels and think that someone else out there is going to help restore bodily autonomy in Wisconsin,” says Jeanne Bissell, president of the newly formed 501(c)(3) Rockford Family Planning Foundation — a group formed in direct response to the fall of Roe, which automatically triggered Wisconsin’s existing 1849 law that makes abortion a felony unless it’s to save the life of the mother. “There’s no one else that’s going to come save us. We have to do this ourselves. And our power together is where we get our strength.”

The foundation is leading the effort to open a state-of-the-art abortion and full-spectrum gynecological care clinic inside the Christensen-owned building. For now, only Bissell feels safe enough to serve as the public face of the nonprofit, which is stacked with professionals and has support in both Wisconsin and Illinois but is dealing with a vocal minority opposition.

“Coming from the Madison and Milwaukee community, I wasn’t quite prepared for how aggressive and abusive and relentless the protesters are in Rockford,” says Bissell, adding that Chicago-area supporters are helping train escorts to safely usher patients and staff into the clinic. The foundation is currently focused on fundraising, not only for startup money to pay the providers and staff while creating the necessary infrastructure for a state-of-the-art health center (including insurance and an electronic health record system), but also for justice funds in case legal aid is needed and, most importantly, to hire security.

“Without a doubt our goal is to minimize the harassment and make sure that providers and patients feel as safe as possible,” Bissell says. “While our whole foundation is volunteer, [so] no one [in the foundation] is taking a penny, we’ll be paying [clinic] staff — and, I might add, very, very generously paying staff — because of the inconvenience and the trauma of going through what they go through every day. I can’t tell you enough just how proud I am of the bravery of providers that do this care.”

Although the fall of Roe was a shocking blow for some, it came as no surprise to Bissell, Christensen or the many others who’ve been working in abortion care. They saw the ruling as only the latest in a long line of dominoes that have been falling in rapid succession — particularly in Wisconsin since the GOP and Gov. Scott Walker’s administration began defunding Planned Parenthood health centers in 2011.

“People have been living in a post-Roe world in Wisconsin for a long time,” says abortion researcher Jenny Higgins, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and director of the UW Collaborative for Reproductive Equity, or CORE. “It’s not like abortion care has been widely available to everybody and now it’s not. … We’ve been concerned for a while at who already lacks access to abortion based on not only lack of clinics, but on policies that prevent health insurance reimbursement for abortion care.”

By the time Roe fell, only four Wisconsin clinics still provided abortions, and only one of those was in Madison. Statewide, 96% of counties — home to 70% of Wisconsin women — lacked an abortion provider. It was also increasingly harder to get an abortion, especially if you lacked money or insurance (all state employees and low-income residents receiving Medicaid were already prohibited from abortion coverage) or lived in rural areas. Abortion seekers were required to endure an initial visit that included “counseling” and mandatory viewing of the fetal ultrasound. The appointments often had a waitlist of at least a week or two, and children were not allowed (59% of abortion seekers already have kids). Then there was a 24-hour waiting period, and finally a return visit for the surgical or pill procedure, which had to be administered by the same physician who conducted the initial consultation. For those who couldn’t afford to take time off work or secure child care or transportation — let alone the out-of-pocket cost for the procedure — abortions in Wisconsin were already out of reach.

By contrast, Illinois has none of those requirements and also has additional protective laws in place. And so, for many years, Wisconsinites with financial means have been fighting Chicago traffic to obtain same-day abortions. Now Illinois clinics are experiencing an influx not only from Wisconsin but also from Iowa and Indiana. Further, according to Bissell, many people in the Rockford area have wanted local abortion services for years — and so the effort to build a new clinic straight down I-90 is not only to give south-central Wisconsinites a quicker, easier drive, but also to help Rockford-area residents finally get access, too.

“We want it to be a Rockford-based community,” says Bissell, noting the foundation board’s plans to include at least one Rockford resident. Partnerships with groups such as the Winnebago County Citizens for Choice are already underway, and Rockford’s mayor, along with members of the faith community, are also supportive. “We’re building a whole coalition,” Bissell says.

Research shows that access to abortion reduces morbidity, mortality and health disparities. According to the landmark Turnaway Study, lack of access to safe and healthy abortions leads to a plethora of significant negative outcomes, including a greater likelihood of living in poverty; staying trapped in abusive or coercive relationships; poor developmental outcomes for children; and a wealth of poor mental, social and physical health outcomes for those forced to carry unwanted pregnancies. In anticipation of the fall of Roe, CORE research predicted that the lack of access would have the largest impact on “rural Wisconsinites, Wisconsinites of color, and those living on low incomes.”

Although the Rockford Clinic is there for anyone who needs an abortion, its main focus is assisting those who are at greatest risk.

“The socioeconomic and the racist aspect of it really cannot be understated,” Bissell says, adding the foundation also plans to assist patients with travel expenses and logistics. The foundation is working with existing nonprofits that provide financial assistance, such as Wisconsin’s Women’s Medical Fund and the Chicago Abortion Fund.

“We will not turn anybody away,” Bissell says, “hell or high water.”

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior editor of Madison Magazine.

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