The Assault on Reproductive Rights Part 4: Fighting Back
There is a glimmer of hope among the reproductive rights battles in states across the nation: People are starting to open their eyes and get involved. For those who prefer that their personal medical decisions remain between them and their doctors, several organizations have been litigating, and winning, wherever unconstitutional and unlawful bills are introduced.
Big news came last month, as the Arkansas 12-week abortion ban was temporarily enjoined by a judge, and the Arizona 20-week ban was thrown out permanently.
“Because it’s so straightforward and obviously unconstitutional under long-established law, it’s largely an open and shut question,” says Andrew Beck, staff attorney at the reproductive freedom project within the ACLU, which has been involved in litigation on the abortion bans in North Dakota, Arizona and Arkansas, as well as fighting restrictive laws in several other states.
“We focus on laws that have the greatest impact on women first,” says Julie Rikelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has also been in the trenches of litigation. “That’s why the bans are so important to be challenged.”
Saving the Clinics
What You Can Do
Concerned citizens who want to protect women’s rights and freedoms have many opportunities to volunteer for pro-choice organizations, donate money, write to lawmakers or otherwise get involved.
The National Women’s Law Center runs the “This is Personal Campaign” which has amassed a community of 440,000 young women to share information on reproductive rights restrictions and provide resources to contact lawmakers and sign petitions. “We know politicians are not listening to what their constituents want,” Borchelt says. “Women should make sure they send the message that politicians should not be making these decisions for them.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America also has an alert that you can sign up for to stay informed and active. “Know the choice position of every single elected official that wants their vote,” says Policy Director Donna Crane. “People might not be aware that the people representing them, in their name, might be taking away their rights.”
Planned Parenthood has a petition action fund as well as an email list to stay informed of how individuals can stand up to insidious lawmakers. “I’m standing up to say — to shout! — enough is enough,” the petition says.
Planned Parenthood has successfully fended off attempts to cut off funding for various women’s health programs in five states, although Oklahoma and Texas have been successful in blocking funding. The programs at risk have nothing to do with abortion; rather, lawmakers are targeting them merely for being associated with Planned Parenthood, which does offer abortion services in some of its facilities.
“The services provided are birth control, cancer screens and blood pressure screening,” says Helene Krasnoff, Planned Parenthood’s assistant director for public policy litigation & law. “None of the providers provide abortions at all. They’re all separate entities.”
Attempts to shut down actual abortion clinics in some states have also been blocked, notably in Texas and South Carolina, while the sole remaining clinics in Mississippi and North Dakota hang on by a thread, jeopardized by laws mandating that doctors have hospital admitting privileges that hospitals have refused to grant. Each is counting on judges to rule that the targeted laws are unconstitutional infringements on reproductive rights.
Dozens of anti-abortion laws get shut down in legislatures every year thanks to fierce lobbying by pro-choice forces. A recent victory outside the courtroom and statehouse has been the revival of the clinic of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. Tiller was one of the few practitioners in the country who would provide late-term abortions for women whose health was in jeopardy or whose fetuses had severe birth defects, before he was murdered by an anti-abortion activist in 2009. In April, former Tiller associate Julie Burkhart reopened the clinic as the South Wind Women’s Center to provide health care and procedures to women who need them.
In another ray of hope, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced a bill to stop false advertising by crisis pregnancy centers – a startling development in a Congress that has been more focused on defunding Planned Parenthood.
Standing Up for Reproductive Rights
One major consequence of the wave of anti-abortion laws is that in nearly all cases, the energy and money of pro-choice groups is spent on the defensive, to stand up for rights that were settled by law 40 years ago. As a result, successful bills to protect women’s health, privacy and right to make decisions about their own bodies have been few and far between.
A rare exception is found in California, where the Legislature is considering measures that would allow nurses and midwives to perform abortions in some circumstances, and Washington state could pass a bill that would require insurers to cover elective abortions.
“I think that, too often, the pro-choice movement defines a victory as stopping bad legislation,” says Debra Cooper, a board member of NARAL Pro-Choice New York. “We very rarely get the chance to define victory as supporting good legislation.”
New York could potentially pass its own pro-choice legislation soon as part of the Women’s Equality Act, which would move abortion rules from the criminal code to the health code and codify Roe into state law in case the federal precedent were ever overturned. “What often goes on in our movement is we are not aggressive or assertive enough,” Cooper says. “It’s like a retreating army, defending less and less ground.”
Hope at the Polls
Ultimately, laws are decided by the people through the legislators they elect. The fate of women’s rights lies not just in the hands of the pro-choice organizations, but in the hands of individual men and women.
Disturbingly, a Pew Report released this year found that 37 percent of Americans didn’t even know what Roe. v. Wade was about, including 56 percent of respondents under 30.
In an era when reproductive rights are under greater assault than ever before, education and engagement are crucial. “It’s critical to learn what is happening and educate others about what is going on,” says Gretchen Borchelt, senior counsel and director of state reproductive health policy for the National Women’s Law Center. “The number and extreme nature of these laws have really galvanized us in a renewed way.”
While battles rage in the courtrooms and capitols, the long-term struggle over women’s health will be decided at the ballot box. “I think politicians who continue to try to dismantle our reproductive rights do so at their own peril,” says NARAL Policy Director Donna Crane. “It’s directly in the face of what Americans want, which is to leave our personal rights alone.”