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Medical residency programs in Wisconsin see a marked decline in applications post-Roe

‘Limiting abortion care has so many ripple effects,’ says Dr. Wendy Molaska, former president of the Wisconsin Medical Society.

By Rebekah Sager - June 21, 2023
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Wisconsin abortion ban
Demonstrators protest outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on May 3, 2022, in response to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

One of the many impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade almost a year ago has been a significant decline in applications from graduating medical students to obstetrics and gynecology residencies in states where abortion is most severely restricted.

Wisconsin’s abortion ban is the oldest in the nation. It’s been on the books since 1849 but went into effect last year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization reversed its 1973 Roe ruling.

Wisconsin Health News in May reported an 8% decrease in applications to OB-GYN residencies in the state, a 2% decline in applications to the state in all residency programs, and a 3% decline in applications in every state where restrictive abortion bans are in place.

“What people don’t understand about limiting abortion care is that it’s not just about abortion care. There are so many ripple effects to this that a lot of people haven’t thought about,” Dr. Wendy Molaska, a family medicine physician and former president of the Wisconsin Medical Society, tells the American Independent Foundation.

OB-GYN programs in Wisconsin have been partnering with Illinois-based residency programs to maintain accreditation, according to Wisconsin Health News.

“Big concerns that we have, especially in Wisconsin, is not only is there already a doctor shortage, but it is going to be worse because we’re going to have fewer residents coming to Wisconsin to do OB-GYN training and family medicine training,” Molaska says. “And especially in a lot of states like Wisconsin, where there’s kind of two urban areas, but the majority of the state is rural, we really need family medicine docs as well because they provide the majority of OB care in rural areas.”

Molaska adds that many residents are young people who may be planning families and won’t choose states with restrictive abortion bans because they won’t be able to get the reproductive care they need if they become pregnant.

“With reduced residents, reduced physicians, we exacerbate care for everyone. And so this doesn’t become just about abortion, this becomes about, you know, your dad with diabetes because there’s no family practice doc in rural Wisconsin to be able to take care of him,” Molaska says.

Wisconsin state Rep. Lisa Subeck tells the American Independent Foundation that she doesn’t believe conservative lawmakers who fought to end abortion rights under Roe were completely unaware of the fallout that would result in health care declines across the board.

“For years, we have fought battles in Wisconsin, including whether or not the UW [University of Wisconsin], which is where the majority of the medical providers in Wisconsin are getting trained, could actually engage in providing that very training that we’re talking about,” Subeck says.

Subeck adds that over the years, she’s seen bills introduced in committees that would have limited the University of Wisconsin’s ability to train OB-GYN residents in abortion care.

“I have to wonder if this is by design. Not that our Republican colleagues and conservatives and the far right necessarily want OB-GYN shortages, but that they go into these things fully knowing the problems they’re creating. But it really is an issue of, to them, it is more important to win on the politics of abortion rather than for people to have the health care they need,” Subeck says.

On June 15, Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, introduced the Reproductive Health Care Training Act of 2023. According to its text, the bill would provide $25 million each fiscal year from 2024 to 2028 for “an education program to expand abortion care training and access” for medical students who must travel outside of the states where their schools are located to obtain such training.

“Students and their supervising clinicians have to travel out of state to get that component of their training,” Baldwin told National Public Radio. ”Meanwhile, neighboring states — and this is happening across the United States, are accepting an influx of students.”

Subeck says her state isn’t just being impacted by a decline in the number of medical residents coming to Wisconsin. A decline in the number of people moving to the state for work is being felt across all job sectors.

“I’ve been hearing that even outside of the medical field, from folks, across industries, people are concerned about coming to Wisconsin, because if they were to find themselves in search of an abortion, they wouldn’t be able to get it here. And this, I think, particularly for young women who may want to practice medicine or do anything else in our state, this is a major issue,” Subeck says.

In June 2022, Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers directed Attorney General Josh Kaul to file a lawsuit over the state’s 173-year-old abortion ban. The case is currently pending in Dane County Circuit Court and is likely headed to the state Supreme Court. Judge Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal, was elected to the Supreme Court in April, and when she’s sworn in in August, she will flip the court’s current conservative 4-3 majority.

I’m sure you know that our Supreme Court has been stacked pretty heavily tilted towards the conservative side for a long time. And we did elect a new justice,” Subeck says. “While there’s no guarantee in how the court will rule, I think that the case will get a fair shake in the Supreme Court, and I believe it’s a strong case, and that, hopefully, that will return abortion to the state once that case is settled.”

Updated to correct the spelling of Molaska.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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