In South Dakota, legislators proposed a bill that would make it legal to kill abortion providers. Yes, really. The bill would expand the definition of justifiable homicide to include those who killed to protect a fetus. (The bill made it out of committee before it was stalled, and the governor said he would veto it.) In Ohio, abortions could be banned once a heartbeat is heard, and in Iowa fertilized eggs could be given the same constitutional rights as people.
State abortion restrictions have always been a part of anti-choice strategy. But conservative legislators and activists--emboldened by the midterm elections--are now executing an increasingly radical state-by-state strategy that, if successful, would effectively make abortions illegal.
After all, you don't need to outlaw abortions if you just make them impossible to get.
According to a report by NARAL Pro-Choice America, state abortion restrictions have increased exponentially over the last fifteen years. Eighteen anti-choice measures had been enacted by 1995; by 2010 that number had jumped to 644. (For you math fans, that's a 3,478 percent increase.)
This year's are nastier than ever.
The Ohio "Heartbeat Bill," for example, would apply to pregnant women four weeks after conception. Taking into account women's irregular cycles or a lack of symptoms, some women would be restricted from having abortions before they even know they are pregnant.
"We are Ground Zero of what I believe will transform the pro-life movement," Janet Folger Porter, president of the anti-choice organization Faith2Action, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In South Dakota, House Bill 1217 would not only require a seventy-two-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions--a serious burden for women traveling out-of-county or those who can't take multiple days off work--but also mandate that women visit an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center the day before the procedure. Such centers are well known for using deceptive practices and providing false information; many tell women that abortion causes breast cancer, a claim dismissed by every reputable medical association in the country. One Florida center featured in the 2010 HBO documentary 12th & Delaware, for example, was shown lying to women about how pregnant they were in an attempt to make patients believe they had more time to make a decision. In truth, they were becoming too far along to have legal abortions.
"It is just another attempt to ban abortion and undermine access to women's health care," says Sarah Stoesz, who heads up Planned Parenthood in the Dakotas.
In Georgia, Republican Representative Bobby Franklin introduced a bill that would require women who have had miscarriages to be investigated by the police to ensure that the miscarriage was "spontaneous." (In 2005, a similar bill in Virginia that would have required women to call the police within twelve hours of having a miscarriage or face jail time was withdrawn after public outrage.)
A bill in Kansas would require consent from both parents in almost all circumstances, and would tighten provisions for minors seeking an exception. Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA, notes that while many young women talk to their parents or trusted adults about their abortion decisions, "There are many reasons why some may not be able to involve their parents," including abuse at home or incest.
The Kansas bill would also make private abortion records available to the district attorney or county prosecutors. Anti-choicers argue that violating patients' privacy is necessary to protect women--they claim the records will be used to prosecute statutory rape. But clinics are already bound by law to report any abuse of a minor, and Kansas does not have a stellar history on this issue. In 2006, then-state attorney general Phill Kline sought abortion records under the guise of protecting abused minors but demanded the files of adult women.
In Texas, Governor Rick Perry recently declared a bill mandating ultrasounds before abortion an "emergency item" to fast track the legislation. Women would be forced to look at an ultrasound of the fetus at least two hours before the procedure, and doctors would be required to describe the fetus's dimensions, limbs, and internal organs. If present, the fetal heartbeat would be played. Once again, the anti-choice claim is that the law would protect women. As with other "informed consent" laws (also insultingly called "Women's Right to Know" laws), this bill assumes that when a woman seeks an abortion she doesn't really know what she's doing, and if presented with the fact that she's getting an abortion, she won't ... get an abortion. "I've never had one patient get off the table because she saw what her fetus looks like," Diane Derzis, owner of an abortion clinic in Alabama, told The New York Times last year.
In reality, forcing women to listen to a fetal heartbeat and look at an ultrasound serves to shame vulnerable women who have already made a difficult decision. It also can make the procedure prohibitively expensive. (Ultrasounds can cost hundreds of dollars.)
Nebraska just passed a law banning abortion after twenty weeks on the grounds of fetal pain. The Abortion Pain Prevention Act lacks exceptions for rape, incest, and fetal anomalies, and contains a clause that prohibits doctors from performing abortions even if they believe the woman may commit suicide otherwise. Similar measures are being drafted in Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. Traditionally, abortion bans are determined by viability--which Roe v. Wade established at twenty-four weeks. So by basing abortion policy on fetal pain, rather than when a fetus can survive, lawmakers know they're creating a direct challenge to Roe.
At the end of the day, these state restrictions along with the inaccessibility of the procedure--the Guttmacher Institute reports that 87 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider--mean that abortion is becoming near impossible for many American women to obtain. The women who will be most affected will be poor women, immigrant women, women of color, and young women. In fact, that's whom the legislation often targets. For example, Virginia has just eliminated state Medicaid funding for women who need abortions to protect their health.
With eight new anti-choice governors in office and fifteen states with both legislators and governors who oppose abortion, the fight ahead will not be an easy one.
"It is so essential that pro-choice people in every state get involved and weigh in on what's going on in their state capitol," says Jordan Goldberg, state advocacy counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
But while pro-choice activists are desperately needed on state and local levels, many have their hands full with threats to women's rights on the national front.
The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (HR 3), called "one of our highest legislative priorities" by House Speaker John Boehner, seeks to make the Hyde Amendment--which restricts federal funding of abortion through Medicaid--permanent. HR 3 also limits the definition of the rape exception to "forcible rape," excluding victims of date rape or statutory rape. (After a national outcry, lawmakers said "forcible" would be removed from the bill--but to date the word remains.)
HR 358, named the Protect Life Act, would allow hospitals to deny women life-saving abortions. Under current law, hospitals receiving Medicare/Medicaid funding are required to provide emergency care, including abortions, even if the patient cannot pay or the health care provider doesn't approve of the procedure. If the hospital refuses, it must stabilize the patient and transfer her to a facility that will give her the life-saving procedure. This bill would allow hospital staff to do nothing--they wouldn't have to provide care or a transfer--except sit and watch their patient die.
Most recently, the House Appropriations Committee announced upcoming legislation that would seek to eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in Title X funding--money dedicated to birth control for low-income women. And the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the country.
Everyone has been organizing against, these attacks against womens health.
Twitter campaigns like #dearjohn, spearheaded by feminist blogger Sady Doyle, were largely responsible for the outrage and action around H.R. 3, inspiring thousands of pro-choicers to tweet, e-mail, and call their representatives.
Steph Herold, a young activist known for her Twitter handle @IAmDrTiller (an homage to the murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller), says, "Besides going through traditional venues like calling and e-mailing elected officials, I think people need to take to the streets. We will organize, we will be loud, and you won't be able to ignore us anymore."
There were protests in cities across the country on February 26 through "Walk for Choice" events.
State-based pro-choice advocates are also ready for a fight. "We will not abandon the women and families of the state," says Stoesz. "As the sole provider of abortion care in South Dakota, these efforts make providing needed health care ever more challenging--but we know that South Dakotans continue to look to us to protect their human rights and provide the care they deserve."
In the floor debate before the vote on the Pence Amendment that defunded Planned Parenthood, Representatives Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, and Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, gave impassioned speeches for reproductive justice.
Moore, who sarcastically commented about the pro-life efforts to "save black babies," said, "I just want to tell you a little bit about what it's like to not have Planned Parenthood.
You have to add water to the formula to make it stretch. You have to give your kids Ramen n oodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won't cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fresh fruits and vegetables because they are expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty."
Speier revealed having a medically necessary abortion. She told one of the anti-choice Republicans, "For you to stand on this floor and to suggest as you have that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.... The last time I checked, abortions were legal in this country."
Legal, but under assault.
Illustration by Christiane Grauert
Jessica Valenti is the author of three books and the founder of Feministing.com. Her new book, "Why Have Kids?" (Harper), will be published in 2012.…