Politics vs. women's rights

Donna Stern is a 20-something comedian in Brooklyn dealing with a break-up, job loss, and an unintended pregnancy. She knows she’s not ready to be a parent, decides to end the pregnancy, and gets a safe, legal abortion at a well-run clinic—supported every step of the way by the people who care about her.

Donna’s story is the fictional basis of Obvious Child, a new film that treats its subject matter with a refreshing degree of nuance and resistance to judgment that’s unfortunately rare in pop-culture. But it’s a realistic depiction of women fortunate enough to live in states supportive of reproductive rights and health care.

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Like many women, Donna struggles to pay for the procedure, but she can get an appointment at a clinic close to her home, on a day that is best for her, very early in her pregnancy. She isn’t forced to travel hundreds of miles, make multiple trips to the clinic, push past screaming protestors, or have a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound, not because her doctor recommends it, but because of politicians want her to second-guess her decision.

This should be the reality for all women—but in a rapidly expanding swath of the United States, where anti-choice politicians hostile to abortion rights have led a blistering assault on access to abortion care, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Between 2011 and 2013, politicians in over two dozen states passed more than 200 restrictions on access to abortion services and other critical reproductive health care. That’s more attacks on women’s health care in two years than in the entire preceding decade. And this year, legislators in Mississippi, Arizona, Louisiana, and Oklahoma passed unjustifiable laws designed to shut down clinics, putting the care and counsel of quality reproductive health care providers out of reach.

For countless women in these states, especially those facing difficult economic circumstances, getting the reproductive health care has been turned into a nightmare experience ripped from the pages of dystopian fiction.

Take Kylie Shelley. Faced with an unexpected pregnancy, she considered her options and decided not to go through with the pregnancy—but because she lives in Oklahoma, she was forced to undergo an ultrasound and sent home for 24 hours before the procedure could be performed. She struggled to pay for her care, which cost four times her weekly paycheck, and was further set back when the 24-hour waiting period cost her an entire day’s worth of hourly wages.

If Kylie had chosen to travel to another state to avoid scaling these barriers, she might have met Klaira Lerma. Klaira works at a Colorado abortion clinic, where patients come from as far as Texas, Nebraska, and North Dakota, because political attacks on reproductive health care in their home states have made it nearly impossible to safely and legally end a pregnancy. These women pay for plane tickets, bus fare, child care, and hotels just to get the medical care they need.

In Mississippi—one of five U.S. states where just a single abortion clinic remains—Laurie Roberts knows all too well what happens when women can’t afford these added costs and are left with nowhere to turn. As a volunteer who helps find financial assistance for women facing these circumstances, she gets asked every day which herbs can be used to induce a miscarriage or whether the abortion pill can be ordered online.

A woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy has been constitutionally protected for more than 40 years. Despite being a right that seven in 10 Americans support, and one in three women will exercise, it has become nearly impossible to obtain in one state after another. The promise of equal rights and equal protection under the law has been broken, and reproductive health care reduced to a fraying patchwork.

More than a dozen of these restrictive laws—under the breathtakingly dishonest pretext of “protecting” women—are currently being challenged in courts across the nation, and it’s only a matter of time before a case makes its way to the Supreme Court.

But women should not have to go to court to get the care they need. Their rights should not depend on where they to live. Their ability to make decisions about their health, families, and future should not depend on their zip code.

That’s why Kylie, Klaira, Laurie, and many other women like them from across the country are bringing their stories to Capitol Hill this week to support the Women’s Health Protection Act—historic legislation that would protect access to safe, legal abortion care for all women in the U.S., no matter where they live. With more than 150 co-sponsors in the Senate and House, concerned citizens nationwide are coming to Washington to call on Congress to advance the Women’s Health Protection Act now.

Anyone serious about protecting women’s health, safety, and well-being should understand that the best way to do so is by trusting their decisions and ensuring their access to the full range of safe, legal, affordable health care options. The Women’s Health Protection Act would do exactly that—and make the supportive, high-quality, readily accessible care depicted fictionally in Obvious Child a lot more like reality for women nationwide.

Northup is president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that promotes and defends the reproductive rights of women in the U.S. and worldwide. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.