When does a legal right become theoretical instead of real? If you want to know the answer, take a look at what’s happening to reproductive rights. States across the country are denying women what they need to protect their health and plan their families. And they’re often doing so in the name of religion and God. The laws, which we review below, should concern any American who cares about women’s reproductive health.
Antichoice laws on the rise
More than 900 antiabortion laws have been introduced since the midterm elections last November, and more than 60 have been passed. For instance, in Kansas a new licensing law for abortion clinics mandates what size and temperature clinic rooms must be, requires that staff dressing rooms have toilets, that clinics stock particular medical equipment and supplies, and that they be connected to nearby hospitals. Antichoice legislators came up with 36 pages of regulations, which one doctor called “bizarre” and “out of date with modern medicine.”
Right now there are only three abortion clinics in the state of Kansas. Soon there may be none.
South Dakota enacted an antiabortion law with requirements so onerous they essentially deny a woman her legal right to an abortion. The bill mandates a waiting period of 72 hours before a woman can have an abortion and requires two separate visits to a doctor. It also requires that a woman get counseling at a “crisis pregnancy center,” a place explicitly created to oppose abortion. On top of these obstacles, South Dakota spreads across nearly 755,000 square miles and has only one abortion clinic. A doctor is flown in from out of state once a week to see patients.
Indiana recently defunded Planned Parenthood clinics throughout the state. The new law makes any organization that performs abortion ineligible for state funds. Lack of clarity in the state’s antiabortion law is affecting hospitals, too. Since its enactment, doctors in hospitals have stopped terminating pregnancies that pose a high risk to the health and life of a woman for fear of losing Medicaid patients.
According to Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Wishard Memorial hospitals, the law has “tied the hands of physicians attempting to provide medically appropriate, evidence-based care.”
Dr. Ferries-Rowe gives this example: A woman loses her amniotic fluid at 16 weeks of pregnancy. If her pregnancy isn’t quickly terminated, she risks serious infection that can damage her organs and cause brain damage or death. Given Indiana’s law, however, doctors would not be able to terminate her pregnancy.
Twenty-week bans: An extremist trend
Among the most dangerous laws are those that restrict or ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. So far, six states—Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—have passed 20-week laws, and more are likely to follow. Only about 1.5 percent of all abortions occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but those that do are often medically necessary.
Danielle and Robb Deaver felt the consequences of Nebraska’s law last fall. As reported by The New York Times, Danielle was 22 weeks pregnant when her water prematurely broke. Before passage of the law, it would’ve been routine for a doctor to induce labor to prevent serious infection. At 22 weeks the fetus is not viable outside the womb.
But the Nebraska law defines “inducing labor” as “abortion” if the goal is not to save the fetus. Danielle’s doctor and hospital lawyers determined that the procedure she needed would be illegal under the new law, so nothing was done. Danielle eventually did go into labor. The baby died within 15 minutes, and she developed an infection that required antibiotics.
What happened to Danielle Deaver could happen to women in other states that passed bills restricting abortion after 20 weeks.
Antichoice activists promoting the 20-week ban have a clear, determined strategy. Their alleged reason for the law is that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, though doctors strongly dispute such a notion. Their real strategy is to invalidate Roe v. Wade without actually having to overrule it. They hope that one of the state laws will be challenged, make its way to the Supreme Court, and be upheld. Linda Theis, a former president of Ohio Right to Life, believes her state’s so-called “heartbeat bill” offers the Supreme Court “an engraved invitation to overturn Roe.”
Once a threshold of fetal pain at 20 weeks is established, they believe it is only a matter of time before they can “prove” that fetuses can feel pain at 12 weeks, or four weeks, or three days. Indeed, the Ohio Assembly just passed legislation that would prohibit abortion after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, which happens at six to seven weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant.
After the bill was passed, Janet Folger Porter, former legislative director of Ohio Right to Life, said, “For every battle-weary pro-lifer who didn’t see how children were going to be protected in our lifetime, come see what God is doing in Ohio.”
Attacking access to contraception
But it’s not just abortion that the radical right is attacking. Family planning is also under the gun.
Arguments that we need to cut the budget and prevent pregnancies by defunding programs like Planned Parenthood are wrong on both counts. Only a small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s work is abortion services. Most of it involves prenatal care, family planning, PAP smears, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and more. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research and policy group, every dollar spent on family planning saves the government $4 in childbearing and child care costs for low-income women. What’s more, a bill in Louisiana to defund Planned Parenthood is clearly part of a larger campaign against women, since Planned Parenthood clinics in Louisiana don’t provide abortions at all. And common sense tells us that cutting funding for family planning increases unwanted pregnancies—and abortion.
Fighting back against extremism
It’s important to take a reality check amid such extreme attacks. Abortion is a common medical procedure. Nearly one in three women will have had an abortion by age 45. And virtually all (99 percent) sexually active women have used contraception at some point in their lives, including Catholic women (98 percent).
Unfortunately, such realities don’t fit right-wing rhetoric that equates moral complexity with sin, demonizes abortion and the women who have them, and claims a monopoly on conscience, family, and God.
But it may be that reality is catching up with the zealots endangering women’s health and lives. When conservatives in Congress threatened to defund all Planned Parenthood clinics as part of a budget-cutting deal, the public rose up, President Barack Obama stood his ground, and the provision was dropped.
The types of reproductive health services Planned Parenthood provides enjoy strong public support. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that a solid majority of Americans support access to contraception, and 6 in 10 believe abortion should be both legal and available.
People of faith are among these majorities. That’s because they understand what it means to wrestle with moral issues and to rely on prayer and conscience for guidance in matters of deep importance. Many mainline Protestant churches and Jewish faith traditions formally support women’s moral decision making when it comes to abortion. But even women from faith traditions that oppose abortion have unwanted pregnancies that they prayerfully decide to end. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute recently reported that the majority of women who have abortions are religious.
That’s why it should be no surprise that reproductive rights and justice groups are working with faith communities to reclaim moral language on sexual and reproductive health and be vocal advocates on behalf of women.
We must also call out extremists who are using religion for their own narrow ideological ends. Until now they have been counting on the fact that they are more fervent in their cause even though their numbers are smaller. But their junk science and extremist agenda have triggered fervor in the rest of us to stand up for women’s health and moral decision making. The truth is that most Americans do not live on the extremes of the abortion debate but in the complicated middle, where abortion is more than a slogan or bumper sticker.
It is neither compassionate nor morally justified for politicians to intrude into the most intimate matters of conscience and the heart. And it is deeply wrong to do so in the name of religion. There is a better way.
Rabbi Dennis Ross has a suggestion that is compassionate and morally sound. “Once a woman weighs all her options, (adoption, carrying to term, abortion) and comes to her conclusion,” he says, “we should make sure she has the best medical care and the support that she deems right for her.”
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress. For more on this initiative please see its project page.