The four horsemen haven’t appeared on the horizon yet, nor has the sea turned to blood, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to reproductive justice in the United States. End times are just around the corner.
In 2013 alone, states enacted gobs of restrictions on early access to abortion. From Texas to Ohio to Iowa, dozens of clinics shut their doors. The courts are abortion-rights advocates’ best hope for stemming the tide of regressive legislation, but as Scott Lemieux has extensively documented here at the Prospect, their judgments have been decidedly mixed.
In this ever-growing maelstrom of incursions on abortion rights, pro-choice politicians have stayed on the defensive, clinging to the standards established by Roe v. Wade even as conservatives whack relentlessly at their foundations. Given the apocalyptic tenor of the times, supporters are routinely lauded as martyrs for the cause. Wendy Davis’s doomed filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill on the floor of the Texas Senate was undoubtedly the high point for the pro-choice movement this year, even though it was clear that the law—which is now wreaking havoc on the state’s abortion providers—would pass anyway. But the victories are almost always pyrrhic, a trickle of small symbolic triumphs amid an avalanche of defeats.
Tamesha Means was only 18 weeks pregnant on the morning of December 10, 2010 when her water broke. In a haze of pain, she called a friend for a ride to the only hospital in her central Michigan county. She had no idea that the hospital, Mercy Health Partners, was part of a Catholic health system. She just knew she needed help.
If you want to take a plunge into the roiling id of the anti-choice movement, go to Albuquerque. Tomorrow, the half-million residents of New Mexico’s most populous city will vote on a ballot measure that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. Although 13 states have enacted similar laws, if Albuquerque’s measure passes, it will become the first municipality to impose a 20-week abortion ban.
Last June, Ohio Republicans quietly slipped a handful of abortion restrictions into the state’s budget, alongside provisions to invest in Ohio’s highway system and a new funding model for the state’s colleges and universities. Eight states, including Ohio, already require clinics that perform or induce abortion to have a “transfer agreement” with a local hospital, so that patients can be transported quickly to a more sophisticated medical center in case of an emergency. The budget, which Republican Governor John Kasich signed into law with the abortion provisions intact, included an innovative new rule, making Ohio the first state to prohibit abortion clinics from entering into transfer agreements with public hospitals.
When the court ruling came down on Texas’s law restricting abortions, media outlets didn’t hold back. The Huffington Post went with the headline “Texas Abortion Restrictions Declared Unconstitutional by Federal Judge” while CNN blared “Judge Blocks Parts of Abortion Law.” Let’s just be clear: The law still bans abortions after 20 weeks and the state is still in the process of creating codes so that next year abortion clinics will have to meet the same building code standards as hospitals that perform invasive surgery. The lawsuit instead, focused on two other provisions of the law—one requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals, the other requiring anyone abortion-inducing pills to follow an outdated medical regime, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court handed down a ruling that will help determine how the U.S. Supreme Court handles its next big abortion case. But Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice hasn’t been scheduled for oral arguments just yet. The law in question, which deals with abortion-inducing drugs, was messily written, leaving room for considerable doubt about whether the state of Oklahoma intended to require doctors to follow a particular set of dosage requirements (the state attorney’s argument)—or ban the use of the drugs for abortion entirely (the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice’s argument).
It’s hard to miss the fallout from the barrage of abortion restrictions that hit state legislatures this year. Four abortion clinics in rural Texas announced plans to close after determining it would be too expensive to comply with a new state law imposing unnecessary medical standards. Clinics in Ohio and North Carolina, where similar laws have been passed, say they may also have to close. Iowa’s telemedicine abortion program—a creative workaround designed to bring first-trimester abortion to women in rural parts of the state—was recently shut down by the state medical board. In states nationwide, the hurdles to access safe, high-quality abortion care are getting higher and higher.
In early August, several dozen teenagers and a few adult supervisors descended on the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico with a request: They wanted the curators to add an exhibit on abortion. When their demand was rebuffed, the teens—who were spending the week in the city as part of a pro-life training camp sponsored by Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust—unfurled a banner outside the building calling Albuquerque “America’s Auschwitz.”
The protest catapulted Albuquerque into the national media, but the demonstration is just one part of a larger experiment by the recent wave of pro-life activists flocking in from out of state: Can they transform New Mexico—a moderate state with liberal abortion laws—into another combat zone in the abortion wars? After a number of failed efforts to change policy in the legislature, abortion opponents have homed in on Albuquerque. Earlier this summer, they gathered enough signatures to put an ordinance banning abortion after 20 weeks before city voters in a special election. While similar bans have been passed in a dozen states, the proposed law would be the first to limit legal abortion at the local level. The immediate goal is to end the controversial practice of third-trimester abortion, but the campaign could also serve as a model for pro-life activists who are eager to spread red-state extremism into more moderate parts of the country.
By the end of July, it was clear opponents of abortion were going to have a banner year. In the first half of 2013, state legislatures across the country enacted dozens of restrictions on abortion clinics that will slim their hours or shutter them completely. States like Wisconsin and Indiana added requirements like ultrasounds and waiting periods for women seeking the procedure. After a high-profile debate, Texas passed a law that bars abortion after 20 weeks, bringing the total number of states with similar bans to 11.
The show’s far from over. Earlier this month, at a press conference that featured the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame, two Ohio state legislators announced they were restarting the fight for one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. House Bill 248, generally known as the “Fetal-Heartbeat Bill,” was introduced on August 22 in the House Committee on Health and Aging, chaired by the bill’s co-sponsor, state representative Lynn Wachtmann.
In the days since North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a restrictive new abortion bill into law, directing state officials to regulate abortion clinics like surgical centers, the first-term Republican has gotten a sharp taste of abortion-rights advocates’ wrath. Only one clinic in the state currently meets the new regulations; the rest will have to undergo expensive renovations or face closure. On Monday, dozens of protesters held a 12-hour vigil outside the governor’s mansion as they waited to hear whether McCrory would sign the law. Returning the next day, after they learned that McCrory had approved the measure, the protesters wore Mad Men-style shirtdresses and old-fashioned lace gloves to emphasize the law’s regressiveness. They waved signs and chanted slogans, encouraging passing motorists to honk in support of their cause. In a nod to the motorcycle safety bill that contained the restrictions, motorcyclists circled the mansion. (No one crashed.)
Texas state senator Wendy Davis, whose unsuccessful attempt to stop a restrictive abortion law drew national attention. (Flickr/Texas Tribune/Todd Wiseman)
Conservatives may be in retreat on many different fronts these days, but in one area, they're having smashing success: restricting the ability of women, particularly non-wealthy women, from accessing abortion services. And they're doing it with a new tool: the 20-week abortion ban, offered as cover for a raft of restrictions that aren't about stopping later-term abortions but about stopping all abortions. They're succeeding not because of some change in Americans' views on the subject, but because of the exercise of raw political power. As you may have heard, opinions on abortion, unlike those on many other subjects, have been remarkably stable for decades.
But that stability masks some stark differences on abortion, differences that create just enough space for Republicans in parts of the country to make abortion all but illegal. Yesterday the Pew Research Center came out with a new poll, showing some rather dramatic gaps by region on what people think about abortion. Check out this graph:
One night in 2007, Jill June, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, couldn’t sleep. She was grappling with a problem that vexes rural pro-choice advocates everywhere: the lack of access to abortion. At the time, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which performs most of the abortions in Iowa, had 17 clinics in its network but only three with an on-site physician. Doctors would travel, sometimes as far as 200 miles, to three other clinics in the state to perform intermittent care. The remaining 11 clinics did not offer abortion services. In all, 91 percent of Iowa’s counties, the more sparsely populated regions that are home to more than half of the state’s women, lacked an abortion provider.
If you're a supporter of reproductive rights in the United States, you're forced to endure various forms of concern trolling. The centrist form, perfected by Slate's Will Saletan, exhorts supporters of abortion rights to concede that abortions are icky and that the good faith of people who support criminalizing abortion must be conceded even when their arguments are a moral, political, and legal shambles. While outright opponents of abortion rights are certainly willing to use these techniques, they have innovations of their own. The concern-troll-in-chief for opponents of reproductive rights is Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Last weekend's manifestation is a particularly good example, both because the arguments are relatively sophisticated and because Douthat is frequently generous enough to provide the material that refutes his own arguments.