The first in a joint series from Madison Minutes and Tone Madison examining the impact of the Dobbs ruling on local families.
On August 4, Madison Minutes and Tone Madison asked readers in the area to participate in a survey on how the US Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the abortion rights protections of Roe v. Wade, has affected their family planning.
Almost immediately, responses started rolling in from people who had a variety of concerns about what lack of access to this medical procedure could mean for their health, their partners’ health, and their family, and questions about how to move forward.
The main segment of the survey asked whether respondents had children, what their family planning had been pre-Dobbs, whether those plans had changed, and to explain in their own words how they would describe their family planning now. If they were feeling particularly generous with their time, there was also a second page that asked respondents to rank factors that influenced their family decisions before and after the Dobbs decision.
Based on the responses we received, we are bringing you a series of stories unpacking the potential long-term impact of a decision that touches on the most private and important decisions in people’s lives: whether to have children, how many to have, and how. Respondents were also asked if they would feel comfortable talking with a journalist so those are some of the voices you’ll hear from in this series.
But first, let’s dig into the survey responses, both by the numbers and with some of the short answers we received.
What we learned
A total of 236 responses came in before the Aug. 24 cutoff, of which 92 (39%) respondents said that yes, Dobbs has changed their plans for their family, 111 (47%) said that it had not, and 33 (14%) said they were unsure.
Of the total respondents, 101 (43%) already had children and 136 (57%) did not.
Of the 112 respondents who said they had planned to have children, 58 (51.7%) said Dobbs had prompted them to change their plans. Of the 111 people who said Dobbs did not change their plans, 75 (67.5%) said that before the Dobbs decision, they had not planned to have children or have more children.
Whether respondents planned to have children, or not, or were unsure, one change we saw in all groups were the measures people were taking to prevent pregnancy.
“While my plan to not have more children hasn't changed, I'm terrified as to what my options are if I'd become pregnant,” one respondent wrote. “I'm in my 40s and use hormonal birth control and my husband does not have a vasectomy (and is unwilling to get one). What if my birth control fails? What happens if I stop using birth control once I think menopause starts only to find myself 55 years old and pregnant? It's scary... I wish there were more options so I didn't have to worry as much.”
A few said they had not planned on having children and may have been open to it before Dobbs, but felt the decision had forced their hand.
“Before now I was open to the idea that I may change my mind about having children and liked having choices,” one respondent wrote. “Now that this has happened I feel like I’ve been forced into a decision and am planning on getting a tubal ligation as soon as possible.”
“If I ever found myself financially stable enough, I would’ve been okay with having a child, if my birth control failed,” another respondent wrote. “Post-Roe [v. Wade], I am considering permanent sterilization. I have a medical condition that puts me at a higher risk for pregnancy complications. If I do not have access to a safe abortion if deemed necessary to save my life, I don’t want to take the risk of getting pregnant in the first place.”
Another 19 respondents said they had previously planned on having children and Dobbs was making them reconsider.
“We had our first child in May 2021, with a plan to have a second somewhere around 2 years after the first. After the Dobbs ruling, we are (still) strongly reconsidering whether we want to intentionally try for a second child in case complications arise during the pregnancy that could threaten the physical/mental wellness of my wife,” one respondent wrote. “Sure, if something non-urgent arose, we could travel to Illinois to receive essential healthcare services, but if it were an emergency and we couldn't safely travel ourselves, then it would take until my wife to be on her near deathbed, likely with sepsis or severe hemorrhaging, before doctors would provide that essential healthcare.”
“I am increasingly unsure,” one respondent wrote. “In a country with such high maternal mortality rates, the reversal of this Supreme Court decision makes me uneasy at the thought of ever being pregnant at all.”
“We were planning to have at least one child,” another wrote. “But with the recent Supreme Court ruling and the lack of access to life-saving healthcare in Wisconsin, due to my age (36) and the increased chance of complications and the hurdles to getting the care we may need at any point in a pregnancy, we are likely not going to have children.”
Despite the increased risks, there were still people who planned to pursue pregnancy at some point. Of the 111 people who said Dobbs did not change their plans, 28 said they did still plan on having children and 8 said they were unsure.
“I'm open to the possibility of pregnancy but not actually trying to get pregnant (Google ‘pregnancy ambivalence’). I date people of all genders, and when I have sex that could lead to pregnancy I use methods like pull out and cycle tracking,” one respondent said. “If I got pregnant it would change my life but not ruin it. I would probably be mostly happy about it. So although I'm absolutely appalled by the ruling (and professionally affected—I am an abortion nurse) it hasn't changed my personal family planning practices.”
Regardless of where respondents were with their family planning, the most frequent recurring theme was fear of physical complications due to lack of abortion access. Fifty respondents completed the second segment of the survey, which asked them to rank how important certain factors were in their family planning decisions before and after the Dobbs decision. By comparing those averages, the most significant change after Dobbs, was that people ranked physical health higher than they had before the decision; the same happened with age, to a lesser extent.
Of the total number of respondents, at least 35 individuals wrote in their short answers that they feared the potentially deadly complications in a pregnancy, either due to pre-existing medical conditions or previous birth experiences.
“I didn't want children before, and I still don't want them,” one respondent wrote. “The Dobbs decision makes it even more imperative that I have good birth control and knowledgeable doctors. Because of a medical condition I've had since birth, delivering a baby could potentially kill me or seriously injure me as well as the baby. The condition I have is rare and misunderstood by most doctors that they may not even consider my case a ‘mother's life is in danger’ situation. A C-section would cause other complications. Even if the delivery didn't kill me, the injuries, pain, and trauma from the delivery could have last[ing] effects on myself and my child.”
“During labor with my first child, I developed very high blood pressure, and had to be monitored for postpartum preeclampsia for 6 weeks,” another respondent wrote. “Thankfully it did not develop, though birth was definitely hard on my body in other ways (like a broken tailbone that gave me chronic pain!). I talked to my doctor in early July about having a second child. She cautioned that I was predisposed to high blood pressure and possibly preeclampsia in my second pregnancy. The cure for preeclampsia (and a lot of pregnancy-related health issues) is delivery. If I developed preeclampsia earlier in pregnancy, when would a doctor determine I was close enough to death before giving me an abortion? My doctor didn't know. It scared me. We are not sure what's next.”
Combing through the short answers of all respondents, we found that at least 50 said they were considering taking greater precautions to avoid pregnancy, such as IUDs, vasectomies, and tubal ligations.
“My partner got a vasectomy as soon as it was leaked that the [Supreme Court] was planning to overturn Roe,” a respondent wrote. “He had his procedure the week it was actually overturned.”
“Originally did not want or plan to have children and the Dobbs decision further solidified that feeling,” one respondent wrote. “Also altered the way I approach sex and monogamy as well as prompted me to explore more aggressive forms of birth control (read: surgery) and have conversations with long term male partners about what they can do to prevent unwanted pregnancy.”
“We still very much want another child. We spent the pandemic dealing with secondary infertility and would be crushed to give up now,” another wrote. “But we are going into this process terrified of needing abortion care—for an ectopic pregnancy, missed miscarriage, life-threatening pregnancy complications, or to terminate a pregnancy due to severe birth defects—and not being able to access it in Wisconsin. Going out of state means paying out of pocket, unfamiliar doctors, and having to take time off work—or it could cause delays that threaten my health or my life. This is a terrible time to be getting pregnant in Wisconsin.”
Lack of abortion access also raises complicated questions for families unable to experience pregnancy, either due to infertility or because they are LGBTQ.
“I’m a 25-year old non-binary person that, as far as I can tell, has the biological capability to get pregnant and birth a child,” one respondent wrote. “Before the Dobbs decision, I wasn’t sold on the idea of having children. Most of my reluctance surrounding this comes from the physical process (the pain and trauma of pregnancy and childbirth) and the mental and emotional struggles that come from this, including the societal expectations and assumptions that would be placed on me. I always knew, if I decided to get pregnant, having as much control as possible over my pregnancy would be essential. Not just physical control but also control over the narrative of my pregnancy.”
“The Dobbs decision has taken away the guarantee of control over my pregnancy, my life, & my identity,” they continued. “The decision has made clear our society’s long-held belief that people capable of getting pregnant are, first and foremost, baby incubators, and they should be forced to fill that role if they happen to get pregnant, by any means. After the decision, I have decided I may raise children one day (adoption, foster, etc.), but I will definitely never get pregnant and birth them purposefully.”
“I am a gay man who would consider adopting a child,” another respondent wrote. “With the fall of Roe v. Wade, there will undoubtedly be more children up for adoption. This is not something I'm happy about, but it is an impact.”
Many respondents also were either too old and unable to become pregnant. Others did not plan on trying for pregnancy until sometime in the future, so they had time to wait and see, though many also said they were concerned about the risk of complications. And of course we got a smattering of anti-abortionists.
The fleeting past and uncertain future
We also heard from people that had just had abortions before the decision, and were grateful that they had that option.
“I was terribly lucky that my fertile years were completely enclosed by the Roe era—and that I lived in urban areas in the upper midwest,” one respondent wrote. “I had two legal abortions in the 1980s, one from ignorance and one after my birth control failed. I also enjoyed ready access to all forms of birth control, so I happily used IUDs for many years.”
One respondent wrote about accidentally getting pregnant while breastfeeding, and with two young children, a full-time job, and graduate school, they decided to abort the pregnancy.
“I am glad that I could do it before this decision was made. The total cost was over $700, something that most women cannot afford,” they wrote. “I am thankful for the option I had. I am urging my husband to get a vasectomy because I don't want to be put in that position again... I love my children, would have had more, but this decision just makes it impossible. I don't want to go through an abortion again, but would be comforted by that last option being there for me.”
That respondent also talk about the inherent sexism of anti-abortionism, which is squarely focused on the actions of women.
“Women are the ones targeted no matter what,” they wrote. “Men yelled at me going into the clinic. Nobody is yelling at my husband. People blame me for not using [birth control], nobody says anything to my husband. We suffer the stigma and the personal emotional pain, yet we are not the only ones involved.”
They also pointed to the impact unplanned pregnancies and lack of abortion access can have on the entire trajectory of someone’s life.
“I had an abortion when I was 21, a decision that I will never regret. My sister had a baby at 18 which altered her whole future,” they wrote. “She still lives in poverty, while I have an advanced degree and a well-paid job. Taking away a woman's right to plan her own family destroys lives that are already being lived.”
We also heard from someone who obtained an abortion before Roe was decided.
“I am a senior citizen who fell pregnant in 1971 before abortion was legal in WI,” they wrote. “I was able to obtain an abortion in [New York]. I have experienced the hardships, isolation, fear, and invasion of privacy of not having access to local abortion services.”
Over the next few weeks we will be publishing a series of articles that dive into the wider implications of this monumental decision. How could it affect people with birth trauma or medical conditions? Will people be able to access the advanced pregnancy prevention measures they need? What does this mean for people who are unable to start families via pregnancy, or rely on IVF or surrogacy?
If we have learned one thing from reporting this series, it’s that abortion is not just about abortion. Denying people access to this procedure casts a wide net that touches everything from pregnancy and childbirth, to finances, careers, health, and life outcomes.