Safeguarding abortion rights begins in the states
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Following the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating two Texas abortion restrictions, anti-abortion activists announced a new agenda focused on enacting state laws that promote fetal rights over women’s rights. While not a new direction, this avenue of attack takes on new urgency since the Supreme Court made clear that many restrictions, known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws, are unconstitutional.

Those of us who support a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion and make intimate decisions about sex, sexuality, and reproduction must also think and act strategically. We must pay attention to the state legislatures and make sure that pernicious legislative proposals never see the light of day. State legislatures aren’t sexy, but they determine what happens when you have sex.

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From gay marriage bans to abortion restrictions, defunding Planned Parenthood while funding abstinence-only-until-marriage “sex ed” and deceptive crisis pregnancy centers, our opposition has been increasingly trying to dictate the trajectories of our personal lives. It’s time to adopt a proactive state legislative strategy that protects and advances reproductive rights, health, and justice from coast to coast.

TRAP laws and other abortion restrictions are the devastating result of a calculated effort at the state level to quietly restrict access to abortion. Quiet, they were. Recent research shows that the public is largely unaware of both the number of anti-choice laws that have passed and their impact. In fact, elected officials in the states have passed more than 1,000 laws that restrict abortion access since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Many of the restrictions in the states come directly from the anti-choice Americans United for Life. Its playbook is a ready-made manual of model legislation intended to prevent a woman from getting an abortion by lying to her, delaying her, doing tests she doesn’t need, making it cost more than it should, letting people harass her, and closing nearby clinics.

Anti-choice state legislators have eagerly obliged by passing these laws, pushing abortion out of reach for millions of women, particularly low-income women and women of color. With women at the mercy of their state legislators, abortion access has become dependent upon a woman’s location, with women in regions of the country hostile to abortion — and with limited financial resources — particularly disenfranchised.

Last month’s Supreme Court victory was a critical one. But it takes years for lawsuits to reach the Supreme Court, negatively impacting millions of women’s lives while the cases wind their way through our complex legal system. As the pro-choice movement continues the laborious process of challenging the restrictions in other states, we must look toward an alternative path to achieving our rights: ensuring pro-choice majorities and leadership in state legislatures and a pro-choice governor with the fortitude to veto legislation that impedes access to abortion. By strategically targeting overzealous states with slim margins of anti-choice legislators, we can make sure that legislators reflect the pro-choice views of their constituencies — who support affirmative policies that make a woman’s experience in having an abortion more supportive, respectful, affordable, and without embarrassment, pressure, or shame.

In states with a pro-choice majority in both the House and Senate, we can aim beyond just repealing laws that place roadblocks in the path of women seeking medical care. A proactive approach could secure new and increased funding for family-planning services, medically accurate sex education, and expanded access to abortion — including the repeal of laws barring insurance coverage for abortion. This strategy could be instrumental in building the kind of coalitions that work to improve women’s lives in intersectional ways by raising the minimum wage, providing child care support, and enacting high-quality pre-school.

There is urgency to ratchet up this strategy now. In recent years, anti-choice attacks have increased exponentially partly because the anti-choice movement was particularly good at leveraging the reapportionment process, when state legislatures redraw Congressional and state legislative district lines following the federal census. In 2010, many state legislatures, dominated by anti-choice politicians, redrew the districts to guarantee their own re-election and run largely in uncontested elections to win their seats. To ensure leverage in the redistricting process, we need to aim to garner a majority in at least one branch of government in every state. In some states, this will take at least two legislative cycles, if not more, but if we are to make progress on reproductive health, rights, and justice, we must play a long game.

We will never stop the pernicious and multiple efforts to roll back rights on women until we pay attention to what happens, often in the dark of night, in state capitols. The Supreme Court decision was a clear victory for abortion rights, but the ultimate success will occur only when Supreme Court decisions are unnecessary and we can stop the avalanche before it begins. It’s time to raise our expectations and do the very unsexy and hard political work of ensuring, in every state, pro-choice leadership that truly represents the will of the people.


Kathryn Kolbert argued Planned Parenthood v. Casey in the Supreme Court. Andrea Miller, now president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health Action Fund, worked with Kolbert on the case.