Protecting abortion rights everywhere

When Texas State Senator Wendy Davis stood up on behalf of a woman’s right to access abortion and spoke for 13 hours against crippling legislation on the floor of the state senate, she galvanized women across the country. That’s partly because of the strength of her example of speaking truth to power. But it’s also because women were ready to listen, already engaged nationwide in defending access to abortion against a reactionary movement that has proposed and passed a record number of anti-abortion laws since 2010.  

Anti-abortion forces have deployed themselves from coast to coast in efforts ranging from forcing medically unnecessary invasive vaginal ultrasounds on women seeking abortions to equally unneeded and expensive demands to widen corridors in clinics offering abortion services.

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Those of us opposing them have been in the trenches state by state too. But what we’ve all seen from those trenches is the need for a national response that stops the campaign against abortion in its tracks, everywhere.

One such response is the newly proposed Women’s Health Protection Act, which is designed to protect clinics providing abortion services from being run out of business by unwarranted and arbitrary over-regulation. This bill must be at the top of our list. It is time to put Congress on record once again in defense of Roe v Wade, and not leave the field to a war of attrition. While the Supreme Court just let stand an appeals court ruling which held that Arizona's nearly absolute ban on abortion at 20 weeks was unconstitutional, vigilance is still critical. By not taking the case, the court may have merely postponed another day of reckoning.

What are we up against? The state laws now restricting access to abortion fall into two categories – making it more difficult or humiliating for women to access abortion or making it more difficult for providers to maintain facilities that provide abortion services. The laws range from arbitrary gestational limits; unjust bans on later abortion; unnecessary waiting periods; so-called “conscience clauses” that not only allow individuals to refuse to participate in providing abortions, but institutions as well; to bans on abortion coverage in both public and private insurance plans.

These laws epitomize overreach, with a strong dose mixed in of medical inaccuracies, including false links between abortion and breast cancer, unproven assertions that a fetus can feel pain, or unsupported claims that a woman will experience long-term mental health consequences after an abortion.

From passing laws impacting individual women, the anti-abortion movement has progressed to targeting clinics. The Texas law that finally passed is hailed as their model. In addition to the questionable ban on abortions beginning at 20 weeks of pregnancy, it requires that all abortion clinics meet the architectural and staffing standards of ambulatory surgery centers – a costly and wholly unnecessary standard that many clinics cannot meet.

The law requires that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital – a mandate that cannot be met by clinics in smaller communities. And it demands that medical abortion – a prescription drug alternative to a surgical procedure – be administered using an outdated, less effective, and more dangerous drug protocol than the one commonly preferred by doctors based on field experience and research.

About one in five abortions today through the 9th week of pregnancy rely on the two-drug combination now widely used.

When anti-abortion protesters swarmed abortion clinics to prevent women from entering or, at the very least, subject them to a gauntlet of insults and intimidation, Congress responded by passing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). The current threats to abortion access embodied in the Texas law and other state statutes are even more dire.In Texas, one third of clinics shut down because they could not meet the standards of the new law – precisely the result sought by abortion opponents.

What is even more callous and shameful is that these laws disproportionately impact women on the margins. For a woman struggling to get by, for example, the economic and health consequences of a closed clinic can be far-reaching, limiting her ability to afford safe, timely medical care and forcing her to travel, losing time from work.

What the Women’s Health Protection Act would do is ban laws and regulations that single out the provision of abortion services for restrictions that are more burdensome than those imposed on medically comparable procedures. Measures that do not significantly advance women’s health or the safety of abortion services and that make abortion services more difficult to access would also become unlawful.

Every woman’s right to access abortion is constitutionally protected. We have the right to make our own decisions about our reproductive health as we see fit, based on our moral and religious beliefs, consulting those we choose. It is time once again to protect that right for every woman, no matter where she lives. Passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act will bring that day closer.

Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, Inc. a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideals into action.