Attacks on Reproductive Rights Make Women's Vote Crucial in 1998

Right-Wing Legislators, Clinic Terrorists Deny Women Abortion Access

 by Tara Malloy, Publications Intern

NOW Interns (from left) Shannon Riggs, Shefali Desai and Tara Casey take part in a Washington, D.C., protest of Wisconsin's anti-abortion law during a visit from Governor Tommy Thompson, who signed the bill into law.

In the last year, federal and state legislatures have passed more restrictions on abortion than at any other time since Roe v. Wade. The last three months particularly have represented an unprecedented attack on all fronts of  reproductive rights-on specific abortion procedures, chemical abortion, federal funding of reproductive health services and even on contraception for minors.

NOW and other feminist groups are countering and raising public awareness of this latest anti-abortion strategy - the coordination of small, specific and seemingly minor restrictions on reproductive freedom that are designed not to stir up abortion-rights supporters, but become increasingly dangerous when working in concert.

"We cannot allow anti-abortion forces-both legislators and terrorists-to take away our rights bit by bit," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "This November we must elect leaders who will safeguard women's reproductive freedom and stand up to the tyranny of violent criminals."

A Flood of State Legislation

Attacks at the state level are a key part of the incremental strategy to outlaw abortion. In 1998 alone, state legislatures introduced at least 305 anti-abortion bills, and in addition, at least 211 anti-abortion bills from 1997 carried over to the 1998 legislative session.

This year, 22 states have already enacted 46 anti-abortion bills, including 10 abortion procedures bans [FL, ID, IA, KS, KY, OK, VA(2), WV, WI]; and 11 bills which limit insurance and state funding for abortion or information about abortion [AZ, FL, KS, UT, WV, MD, TN, NE(2), KS, OH].

Particularly damaging was the abortion procedure ban in Wisconsin (Act 219), which took effect on May 14, and temporarily eliminated all abortion services in the state due to its vague definition of the prohibited procedure and its penalty of life imprisonment for physicians.

"When we've argued that these bans, which supposedly prohibit a specific late-term procedure, are really back-door attempts to ban abortion altogether, we've been treated like Chicken Little alarmists. Well, the sky just fell on Wisconsin women!" Ireland stated.

Abortion opponents positioned the Wisconsin act as the criminalization of "partial birth abortion" - a political phrase, not a legitimate medical term. The new law also defined a fetus as a human life from the moment of conception.

Although the act was immediately challenged in court, Judge John Shabazz of the Federal District Court refused to issue a temporary restraining order, on the grounds that fetuses would be "unnecessarily killed" if the ban were revoked before trial.

In response, Wisconsin clinics stopped providing abortions and referred patients to facilities in Illinois and Minnesota until state district attorneys assured doctors that they would not be prosecuted for first trimester abortions.

NOW members demonstrated in Wisconsin, neighboring states, Washington, D.C., and across the country to protest Judge Shabazz and Governor Tommy Thompson's refusals to block the Wisconsin ban and to bring attention to the true dangers of this type of legislation. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily stayed the ban pending its consideration of the appeal.

Congressional Procedures Ban

On July 23, the House voted 296-132 to override President Clinton's veto of an abortion procedures ban, setting up an inevitable Senate showdown to come shortly before the fall elections.  Two hundred nineteen Republicans and 77 Democrats, including Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., opposed the veto.

Although Clinton's original veto of the ban came last year, Republican leaders sidetracked the override vote until election season in an attempt to rally critical conservative constituencies to support GOP candidates this November.

NOW and other critics of the bill have repeatedly said that the abortion procedures ban was unconstitutional because it makes no exception to protect the health of the mother and applies without regard to trimester.

The Senate is more evenly split than the House on the issue. The Senate passed the abortion procedures ban 64-36 last May, three votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. NOW and other reproductive rights supporters are fighting to hold on to a sufficient number of votes to block an override.

Challenge to Landmark NOW v. Scheidler Victory

On July 17, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime held a hearing on amending the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in the wake of the NOW v. Scheidler verdict.

In this landmark case, Joseph Scheidler, the Pro-Life Action League, Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion terrorists were found guilty under RICO of 120 counts involving force, violence or intimidation as part of their national network of organized anti-abortion terrorism, and furthermore, were held liable for triple damages for the harm they had caused clinics.

Supporters of the RICO amendment charge that the statute is overbroad and has been used to violate the free-speech rights of groups such as Operation Rescue. These legislators wish to eliminate the crime of extortion from the statute and exempt advocacy organizations from the RICO statute, thus placing anti-abortion groups beyond the reach of civil litigation.

"Before hearing a word of testimony, I can predict that these hearings will have little to do with freedom of speech or RICO--and everything to do with abortion politics," Ireland said at a press conference prior to the event. "The First Amendment is not a defense against bombing, maiming and murder."

Emily Lyons, the nurse seriously injured in the February clinic bombing in Birmingham, testified at the hearing that amending RICO would make it harder for victims of violent protests to punish those responsible. Stepping out to the side of the witness table to show subcommittee members the devastating results of the bomb blast on her body, Lyons asked, "How could you take away a law that would help prevent this from happening to someone else in the future?"

The Justice Department opposed limiting RICO arguing that eliminating extortion from the law would deny federal prosecutors a powerful tool against mob coercion and labor racketeering.

Young Women's Access Threatened

On July 15, the House voted 276-150 to make the transportation of a minor across state lines for an abortion a federal crime unless the young woman in question has already satisfied the requirements of her home state's parental notification or consent law. The passage of the so-called Child Custody Protection Act (S.1645/H.R.3682)-termed the Teen Endangerment Act by NOW and the New York Times-did not have a sufficient margin to override a possible Presidential veto, however.

This legislation would require the prosecution and jailing of grandparents, aunts, uncles, ministers, close friends or siblings who accompany a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion.  Adults "guilty" of aiding these young women in a time of crisis could be prosecuted for a federal crime and, if convicted, would face up to a year in jail.

Reports indicate that nearly 61 percent of young women consult with their parents regarding their decision to obtain an abortion, regardless of whether they are required to by law. Those who do not discuss their choice with their parents often fear abusive repercussions. Chances are slight that a bill will compel young women who are afraid or ashamed to consult their parents to do so. Instead, as a NOW action alert explains, minors will be forced to travel out of state alone to abort, delay the procedure until money is raised to do so or seek an illegal and unsafe abortion.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed an identical bill on July 15 and rejected Clinton's conditions for Presidential approval of the bill, one of which would have exempted adult relatives of the teenager from prosecution.

RU-486 Under Attack

In a sneak attack on June 24, the U.S. House voted effectively to prevent the use of  RU-486 (mifepristone) and other new drugs used to induce abortion although they present women with the safest, least invasive method of early abortion. The Coburn amendment, surreptitiously tacked onto the FY 99 Agriculture spending bill, prohibits the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from using funds for testing and approval of any drug for the chemical inducement of abortion, including mifepristone.

France, Germany, Great Britain and Sweden approved RU-486 following clinical trials. The U.S. has also conducted successful trials under the FDA's scrutiny, and in 1996 the NOW Foundation testified before an FDA panel on the urgency of approving it for general use.

Opponents of the amendment challenged whether congressmembers-whether abortion rights supporters or not-had the authority to disapprove a particular drug. Such political interference in the scientific testing of the FDA is unprecedented.

After NOW members and other activists contacted their senators, the Senate passed its FY 99 Agricultural Appropriations bill without language restricting FDA testing of chemical abortion methods. However, differences between the bills will have to be worked out in a conference committee of the two houses in September.

Funding Restrictions Affect Many Women

As the RU-486 "ban" attests, restricting funding of reproductive services is a potent way to legally cut off women's access to abortion. Nearly every spending bill for Fiscal Year 99 contained restrictions on public funding of reproductive services.

If the Republicans get their way, teens will need parental consent before they can get contraception.  The House Appropriations committee passed an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill; the amendment requires teens seeking prescription contraception at Title X (federally-funded) clinics to have parental consent or the provider must notify a parent or legal guardian. The committee also adopted a new provision that would prevent Medicaid funding of abortions for disabled women.

On June 25, the Senate voted to maintain its ban on abortion services for military women and dependents at overseas military facilities-even if the procedure is privately funded. The House passed a similar bill the month before.

The Senate voted on July 22 to continue barring federal workers' health care plans from covering costs of most abortions as an amendment to the appropriations bill for the Treasury Department.  The companion House Treasury bill would have prohibited federal workers' plans from covering any abortion whatsoever, even when the woman's life was endangered.

The House FY 99 Commerce Appropriates bill passed on Aug. 9 included an amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for federal prison inmates, except in cases of rape or life endangerment. The Senate included the same abortion restriction in its bill passed July 23.

Anti-abortion proponents in Congress are also attempting to approve a "global gag rule" to prohibit U.S. funding of any foreign family planning organizations which perform abortions or attempt to influence their country's reproductive rights policies, limiting the options of women around the world.

The Terrorist Faction

Outside the legislature, violence and intimidation continue to play a part in the onslaught against reproductive rights. In the wake of the deadly Birmingham bombing, anti-abortion terrorists have turned to an alternative type of attack-butyric acid. Butyric acid creates noxious fumes that irritate the eyes, damage the respiratory system and can be lethal in large quantities. In the month of May alone, 10 Florida clinics were acid-attacked.

Vandals bored holes through window frames and then poured as much as one-half gallon of the foul-smelling chemical into each of the clinics. After the attacks, clinics had to be evacuated, and in some cases clinic workers were sent to hospitals with respiratory problems. Clinics will have to replace carpeting, furnishings and materials which have permanently absorbed the fumes.

The Florida Law Enforcement Department has said that the attacks were most likely related. All of the attacks were committed within days of  Operation Rescue's eight-day anti-abortion rights "Operation Pushback" drive.

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