- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - A federal appeals court panel heard arguments Thursday over a Wisconsin law requiring doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, with the presiding judge saying there is “not a rational basis” for the requirement.

Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit said during oral arguments in Chicago that the law was designed to shut down abortion clinics, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported (https://tinyurl.com/q2t6mmu ).

Republican supporters of the law passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker say it was designed to ensure doctors are properly credentialed and women get the care they need. But Democratic opponents and supporters of abortion rights say its goal was to limit access to abortion.

A federal judge in Madison blocked the law shortly after it passed in 2013 and struck it down as unconstitutional in March. The state appealed, leading to Thursday’s arguments.

“There is not a rational basis for your statute because it doesn’t provide any health benefits for women seeking abortion,” Posner said to Assistant Wisconsin Attorney General Brian Keenan.

Despite tough questions and comments, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel said the state might prevail.

“It’s hard to read the tea leaves,” said Schimel, who observed the arguments. “You can’t always tell what a judge’s ultimate decision will be based on the questions.”

The other two judges who heard arguments were Daniel Manion and David Hamilton. Posner and Manion were appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan; Hamilton was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama.

In December 2013, the same panel unanimously upheld a temporary block on the law in an earlier stage of litigation.

Planned Parenthood and the state’s other abortion provider, Affiliated Medical Services, challenged the law as soon as it was approved, contending that it would force Affiliated’s clinic in Milwaukee to close because doctors couldn’t get admitting privileges.

The clinics argued if that happened, the state’s three other abortion clinics wouldn’t be able to absorb Affiliated’s case loads. Those clinics, all run by Planned Parenthood, are in Milwaukee, Madison and Appleton.

Hamilton questioned Thursday how the state could argue it was acceptable for women to travel to Chicago or Minneapolis if the law resulted in the closure of one of Wisconsin’s four clinics that provide abortions.

And Manion noted that a significant portion of abortions in Wisconsin are medication abortions, in which the woman takes the final dosage at home. In those instances, complications could occur 100 miles or more away from the hospital where the doctor who gave her the medication has admitting privileges, he said.

“That was clearly designed to close down abortion clinics,” Posner said. “It had nothing to do with women’s health.”

Courts have blocked such laws in six other states. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide the issue, though it may ultimately take a case from a state other than Wisconsin.

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