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National NOW Times >> Spring 2004 >> Article

Erosion of Reproductive Rights in States Gains Speed

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Since the beginning of 2004, women in Texas have effectively been unable to obtain an abortion past the 16th week of pregnancy. The state legislature has implemented a new requirement that abortions beyond the 16th week must be performed in hospitals or ambulatory surgery centers, not a doctor's office or freestanding clinic. But many of the hospitals in Texas are Catholic-owned and according to Texas Planned Parenthood, not a single ambulatory surgery center performs abortions. For freestanding women's health clinics or doctor's offices to meet all the new (and unnecessary) architectural and equipment upgrades specified by the legislature, the costs would be prohibitive.

Bill Bell's daughter Becky Bell died as a result of an unsafe 'back alley' abortion she sought due to Indiana's parental notification law. Bell spoke at a March for Women's Lives reception hosted by NOW and the Feminist Majority on April 24.
Bill Bell's daughter Becky Bell died as a result of an unsafe 'back alley' abortion she sought due to Indiana's parental notification law. Bell spoke at a March for Women's Lives reception hosted by NOW and the Feminist Majority on April 24. Photo by Christy Bowe
Among other restrictions, Texas abortion providers must hand out a pamphlet entitled A Woman's Right to Know, which contains unscientific and inaccurate information about the (false) link between abortion and breast cancer. The brochure suggests that a woman getting an abortion will be psychologically damaged and notes the death rate associated with abortion, but not the much higher death rate associated with childbirth. A new Texas law also increases the intimidation by requiring that abortion providers photocopy the patient's driver's license or other personal identification and keep it on file!

In Utah, a recent statute denies state funding to any hospital or clinic that performs an abortion except in cases of rape, incest or "permanent, irreparable and grave damage" to the woman. As a result, Salt Lake City's University Hospital will no longer terminate pregnancies involving fetuses with fatal deformities.

South Dakota Narrowly Defeats Ban

In South Dakota, the legislature passed an abortion ban that does not even have an exception for rape or incest – and it would be law right now if not for a technicality (see more details below). Proponents expect to pass the bill next year and were unabashed in their determination that this law will go to the Supreme Court in another attempt to reverse Roe v. Wade – perhaps to a Court where a single resignation has changed the balance against women’s rights.

Dr. Susan Wicklund spent more than four years of her life flying between three states, providing abortion services at clinics that otherwise would have gone out of business.
Dr. Susan Wicklund spent more than four years of her life flying between three states, providing abortion services at clinics that otherwise would have gone out of business. Photo by Christy Bowe
These are just a sample of many reports from the states about the determination to reduce access to abortion services. More than three decades after Roe, we face a deeply threatening political environment. A virtual tidal wave of anti-abortion and anti-contraception legislation is sweeping across the 50 states, resulting in 380 new state laws since 1995 that limit or deny access to reproductive health services. And many more restrictive bills are being considered now that most state houses and senates are controlled by anti-reproductive rights majorities.

This movement is the result of a deliberate, well-coordinated and well-financed effort by extremist religious and political organizations. These groups are spending tens of millions of dollars to research and draft restrictive bills, pay public relations firms to influence opinion and lobby legislators, and contribute to candidates who oppose women's right to abortion and contraception. Distributing "model" legislation to states, training legislators and activists, and plotting legal strategies are all part of this disciplined and focused operation.

State Legislatures Push Hundreds of Bad Bills

Although many bills that limit women's reproductive health options move through Congress each year, much of the dramatic erosion is taking place at the state level.

In 2003 alone, 558 anti-abortion/anti-contraception measures—a 35 percent increase from the previous year—were considered by the states and 45 of them were adopted. Most dealt with restrictions on minors' access to reproductive health care, biased counseling and mandatory delays, measures granting legal personhood status to embryos and fetuses, initiatives allowing individuals and institutions to refuse to provide abortion and family planning services, and restrictive regulations targeted at abortion providers.

By the same token, of the 261 bills introduced to advance women's reproduc-tive rights, only 22 were enacted. Most regrettably, when reproductive rights advocates have to fight hundreds of pieces of hostile legislation, we have fewer resources to advance better health care for women and their families — and young women, women of color, poor women and those living in rural areas suffer the most.

Women Face Clinic Violence and Barriers to Access

Only 13 percent of all counties, and just three percent of non-metropolitan counties, have an identifiable abortion provider. As older doctors who were sensitized to the tragic consequences of illegal abortion retire, fewer physicians are choosing to provide abortions. Fewer medical schools and teaching hospitals are offering training in the procedure to future OB/GYNs; as recently as 1998, less than half of OB/GYN residency programs made first trimester abortion techniques a routine part of training.

In addition to the lack of trained physicians and facilities, continuing harassment and violence deters women from obtaining reproductive health services. The level of violence has declined in some areas, partly because of the nationwide injunction we obtained in NOW v. Scheidler, and because of the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act that prohibits "force, threat, or physical obstruction" in preventing patient access to a clinic. But opponents routinely harass and demean women seeking services, and trespass at and vandalize clinics.

The number of violent incidents at abortion clinics in the U.S. and Canada has gone from a total of 637 during the 10 year period of 1977-1987 to an annual high of 452 in 1993, then declining to 143 in 2003. The total number of violent incidents reported from 1977 to 2003 is 4,203, with a total of 696 clinic blockades. Bear in mind that these figures are likely understated, as not all incidents are reported.

These statistics include seven murders of clinic personnel and escorts, 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 169 cases of arson, 1,081 acts of vandalism and numerous other incidents, such as anthrax threats, acid attacks, kidnapping and burglary. Extremists have limited their violent activities thanks to federal civil and criminal penalties—the number of arrests has gone from a high of 12,358 in 1989 to none in 2003. But the overall total of violent and disruptive incidents over the 1977 to 2003 period is 88,531, in addition to nearly 700 blockades.

Catholic Hospital Mergers Deny Care

The stealthy spread of the mergers of Catholic hospitals with community and private hospitals has largely escaped notice. From 1990 to 1998, there were at least 127 mergers between non-Catholic and Catholic hospitals. The impact on reproductive health care services in many of those hospitals has been damaging, with denial of emergency contraception to rape and incest victims, elimination of abortion and sterilization services, and a preference to saving the life of a fetus over that of the woman in crisis pregnancies, among others. A guide, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, developed by the U. S. Conference of Bishops, spells out the kind of services that can be provided or denied, and the merged hospitals are required to follow them.

Federal legislation has been introduced to require any hospital receiving federal funds—and most hospitals do—to provide necessary medical services, but the current Congress is not likely to pass it. For rural areas and small towns where the community or private hospital was the only facility where women could find reproductive health care, the Catholic hospital mergers have meant there is no facility to serve their needs.

States Succumb to Anti-Abortion/Anti-Contraception Wave

Some states have had their worst year for anti-reproductive rights legislation. For instance, in South Dakota, legislation was proposed in an attempt to ban nearly all abortions with the assertion that life begins at conception and therefore "abortion constitutes murder of a guiltless life." A provision protecting a woman's life, but not her health, was included. State Rep. Matt McCaulley (R), a spokesman for the bill, is on record as stating that the "health of the mother is not substantial enough justification for taking life." The language could also be interpreted to prohibit contraception.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds sent the bill back to the state legislature requesting technical changes to ensure that existing state restrictions would remain in effect while the legislation was challenged in court. In a 17-18 vote on March 15, the South Dakota Senate declined to approve these changes, which means the ban is defeated for the year. The deciding vote was reportedly cast by an anti-abortion legislator who felt the ban didn't go far enough.

An abortion ban may be enacted soon in Michigan, where a petition effort is attempting to defeat Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's veto. Reportedly, anti-abortion forces in Minnesota, Iowa and other states will attempt outright ban bills in 2004 as well.

State Assaults in 2003

  • Legislators in eight states considered 13 measures that would ban all or most abortions (Ga., Mich., Miss., N.D., Okla., R.I., Wash., W.Va.). None were enacted, although Michigan passed the Legal-Birth Definition Act which, as noted, was vetoed.
  • Thirteen states (Ark., Conn., Hawaii, Mass., Mich., Minn., N.H., N.Y., Ore., Utah, Vt., Va., Wash.) considered 25 bills banning abortion procedures (so-called partial-birth abortion bans, which actually ban a wide range of procedures). Only Virginia enacted a ban, but a court injunction was issued in January 2004, so it has not yet taken effect.
  • Twenty-one states considered 44 bills criminalizing harm to an embryo or fetus independent of the pregnant woman. Texas passed such a bill, similar to the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act (see Legislative Update for more on the federal bill).
  • Five states (Conn., Idaho, N.D., Va., W.Va.) considered six bills to provide state health insurance for fetuses, rather than pregnant women, under the State Child Health Program (SCHIP). None adopted those bills, but Colorado suspended coverage for pregnant women receiving care under SCHIP.
  • Eighteen states considered 40 measures that would further restrict young women's access to abortion services by requiring parental notice or consent. Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia enacted or modified new and existing restrictions.

Help NOW fight back against the well-funded effort to deny women reproductive freedom. Join your local chapter or make a contribution to our work by visiting www.now.org or calling 202-628-8669.

Resources: NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Abortion Federation, Catholics for a Free Choice

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