The Assault on Reproductive Rights Part 1: All-Out Attacks
An avalanche of restrictive measures that strip women’s reproductive rights has passed in states all over the country in the past three years. Lawmakers behind the all-out assault on personal rights must hope that women and men alike have closed their eyes to the unprecedented rollback of women’s freedom to make decisions about their own bodies.
Legislators have passed laws to limit abortions and other reproductive care, attacking the facilities and doctors who perform services, limiting the ability to fund procedures and challenging outright the legality of constitutionally-protected rights.
More than 300 anti-abortion provisions have been introduced in the states so far this year. The country saw a record number of 92 abortion restrictions enacted into law in 2011. In 2012 a total of 43 more were enacted, and 2013 is shaping up for more of the same.
The assault began after a sweep of state-level conservative victories in the 2010 elections. “You saw a dramatic change in the composition of state legislatures and occupants in governor’s mansions across the country,” says Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“They ran on a promise of fixing the economy and creating jobs,” Crane says. “Then all of a sudden the goalie got pulled and all these restrictions started getting signed into law.”
Not only have the number of laws increased, the nature of the legislation has become much more severe. “What you thought was a restriction in 2000 is now considered mundane,” says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a group that tracks abortion laws. “The types of restrictions we are dealing with on the state level are much more extreme.”
Closing the Clinics
The new restrictions have nothing to do with protecting women’s health and everything to do with making it harder to get an abortion.
“Half of pregnancies are unintended,” Nash points out. “Instead of trying to figure out why and preventing women from being put in the situation to need an abortion, we’re doing nothing but putting all these restrictions in place to make it harder to access services when they are needed.”
Some laws attempt to make it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate. One strategy is to create rules mandating that the physical facilities are equivalent to hospitals, a medically unnecessary measure that puts many out of business due to the expense.
Laws also target health professionals by mandating that any doctor who performs abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. However, hospitals are under no obligation to grant these privileges and need offer no reason for refusing to do so. The requirement simply creates one more pointless hurdle, since any patient needing emergency care would be admitted into the hospital anyway, regardless of whether the doctor has privileges.
Eleven states have implemented hospital-level requirements or doctor privilege laws since 2011, and they are having the intended effect. Five clinics have shut down in Pennsylvania, nine in Michigan, and more in other states. The shutdowns come in an environment where 87 percent of U.S. counties already have no abortion provider, according to the National Abortion Federation.
Once a woman actually makes it to a functioning clinic, states still try to stand in her way. Laws imposed include:
- Forcing women to get ultrasounds. Eight states since 2011 have passed ultrasound laws, while a total of 18 states require women to receive inaccurate information and two mandate waiting periods of at least 72 hours.
- Forcing doctors to provide biased and inaccurate information about the dangers of abortions.
- Imposing mandatory waiting periods before a procedure can be performed.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s response to opponents of a proposed ultrasound law gives insight into the attitudes spurring this new wave of legislation. Corbett brushed aside objections to forcing a woman to view an ultrasound of her fetus before undergoing an abortion, offering some simple advice: “You just have to close your eyes.”
Defying the Law
Lawmakers have done everything in their power to make it nearly impossible for women to be able to pay for abortions. Numerous states have passed measures that limit or block the ability of public or private insurance to cover procedures. Additionally, seven states have tried to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, mostly for health services that have nothing to do with abortion.
And in case the indirect measures aren’t effective, several states have enacted outright abortion bans in direct defiance of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. The high court held that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion before the fetus is viable to live outside the womb, which is around 24 to 26 weeks into gestation. Nevertheless, 10 states have enacted laws outlawing abortions prior to 24 weeks.
Most of the state bans come at 20 weeks, already a clear violation of Roe, but two states have gone even further. Arkansas passed a 12-week ban this year, while North Dakota went even further and passed a six-week ban. In many circumstances this could mean that an abortion would already be illegal before a woman even knew she was pregnant. A judge temporarily enjoined the Arkansas ban last month.
Finally, legislators have one last trick up their sleeves under the guise of “personhood” legislation. Using language that gives a zygote legal rights from the very moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, the laws aim to ban all types of abortion, as well as many forms of birth control.
This explosion of laws represents “a really unprecedented intrusion on a woman’s ability to make decisions about her health care,” says Helene Krasnoff, assistant director for public policy litigation & law for Planned Parenthood. “We’re looking at a situation where women’s rights depend on their zip code.”