Sisterhood Blog

Are Reproductive Rights on the Way Out?

By Sarah Seltzer

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If you think the 2012 election and the epic veto-by-voter of all the misogynist politicians confused about rape means that abortion rights are once again ascendant, this first week of 2013 is likely to be a sobering. A major survey and a big cover story released this week declare anti-abortion efforts successful when it comes to the reality of how easy it is for a typical American woman to obtain an abortion.

As a writer who frequently does roundups of what’s happening for reproductive rights in the states, this is merely the broadcasting of a cruel reality: bit by bit, law by law, abortion rights are fading away.

Early in the week, the Guttmacher Institute released an important study of all the state-level legislation that was passed on reproductive rights during the past year. And although it didn’t reach the levels of 2011, the year many pundits dubbed the “War on Women,” reproductive rights continued their rollback, particularly in states like Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and even Wisconsin:

Over the course of the year, 42 states and the District of Columbia enacted 122 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. One-third of these new provisions, 43 in 19 states, sought to restrict access to abortion services. Although this is a sharp decrease from the record-breaking 92 abortion restrictions enacted in 2011, it is the second highest annual number of new abortion restrictions.

What are these restrictions? Waiting periods, parental consent and notification provisions, mandatory ultrasounds, pushing abortion out of health insurance coverage, cutting funding for family planning, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers or TRAP laws that mandate clinic hallway size and the hospital admitting privileges of staff in a particular way that’s meant to put clinics out of business, counseling, restricting of medication abortion (abortion via pill) done remotely via telemedecine and more. If these things sound confusing to you, that’s why they’re working. It’s hard to get up in arms and say “we need our telemedicine medication abortion!” and get a huge uproar going.

TRAP laws in particular will require that clinics meet standards designed for hospitals. As Irin Carmon wrote in Salon this week:

Clinic regulations are the most insidious of abortion restrictions, because they’re harder for the layperson to understand and tend to incite less outrage as a result….But research has suggested that they also tend to be the most effective: It’s difficult to talk a woman out of having an abortion, but if you make access near impossible, you might take the choice off the table altogether.

The saddest and most sobering coda to these statistics may not be the proliferation of negative laws but the lack of progress in the other direction, even in “blue” states. According to Guttmacher, “no laws were enacted this year to facilitate or improve access to abortion, family planning or comprehensive sex education.”

Just as the results of this study began to sink in, the cover of Time magazine this week proclaims that the pro-choice side is not only losing now, but has been losing since Roe v. Wade passed 40 years ago. The Time piece, by writer Katie Pickert notes correctly the real-life results of the very type of information encapsulated by Guttmacher. With all these restrictions adding up, “getting an abortion in America is, in some places, harder today than at any point since it became a constitutionally protected right 40 years ago this month.”

In December, the New Republic profiled Jennie McCormack, who using medicine acquired on the internet induced a late-term abortion herself. Her story is sad and disturbing, but it’s a result of the onerous restrictions that women in many states face. McCormack won a court victory after an attempt to prosecute her:

In September 2012, the Ninth Circuit issued a 37-page decision that, for the most part, vindicated McCormack…the ruling describes in detail the difficulty poor women experience in obtaining an abortion in Idaho. These restrictions, [the judge] argued, essentially outlawed the procedure for them… He maintained that, since it was so hard for McCormack to obtain a legal abortion, it was unjust to charge her for having an illegal one.

Is there any way we can reverse the kind of erosion that drove McCormack to her act of desperation? On Rachel Maddow earlier this week, NOW President Terry O’Neill said that she hoped there would be a silver lining from the 2012 election: emboldened Democrats willing to push back on these issues. Maybe, but I’m never inclined to put all my hope in politicians.

As much as I’d like to see fearless politicians take on the right wing over abortion, I’d also like to make it impossible for them not to do so. In the new year, I envision a large, inclusive and wide-ranging coalition of unrelenting constituents focused on actually expanding healthcare and access to services for families and women, not merely stopping the negative momentum from the right wing. It’s interesting that just as all these stories were coming out, Dissent magazine put out an issue devoted to envisioning a “new feminism” that includes blue-collar workers and women of color, labor rights along with reproductive rights. It’s a tall order to connect all these struggles in the minds of those who are struggling, but thinking small has led us to where we are today — which as these studies show, is not a great place to be.

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