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An ally in the White House is good for abortion access, but not enough

An ally in the White House is good for abortion access, but not enough
© Bonnie Cash

This week was the beginning of the end of the Trump era. With President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Rural Americans are the future of the clean energy economy — policymakers must to catch up WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year MORE in the White House, Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris pushes for support for cities in coronavirus relief package This week: Senate takes up coronavirus relief after minimum wage setback Brown vows Democrats will 'find a way' to raise minimum wage MORE presiding over the Senate and a House with a pro-reproductive rights majority, the damage inflicted on abortion access during the Trump administration can be undone. 

The Biden-Harris administration can end the global gag rule and unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion immediately, they can work with health care champions in Congress to end the harmful Hyde and Helms Amendments, and much more. 

But make no mistake: The politicians, organizations and millions of people who fueled Trump’s rise to power and legacy are not gone. For millions of people in states across the country, it doesn’t matter who is in the White House; their rights and freedoms, including the right to access abortion, are hanging by a thread. In fact, 29 states currently have state legislatures with majorities hostile to abortion. 

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Today is the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which established the right to abortion. And while this ruling has stood for nearly a half a century, now six of the nine justices on the court have a record of hostility to that right. Even now, with a president and vice president committed to reproductive rights and with majorities in Congress, what is left of the right to abortion has never been more at risk. 

At this moment, at least 19 abortion-related cases are just one step from the Supreme Court. Last week, we saw what could happen when any one of them make it before the court — it could be devastating for the nearly one in four women of reproductive age in the U.S. who will have an abortion.The Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling that allowed people to access medication abortion without extra trips to the health center. During the COVID-19 pandemic, no one should have to unnecessarily expose themselves to the virus just to get health care, whether they need an abortion or antibiotics. But as a result of the Supreme Court’s action, abortion is being treated as different and separate from other health care and as something to be restricted. With three Trump-nominated justices now on the court for life, this could be the new normal. 

Since 2011, more than 480 restrictions on safe, legal abortion have been enacted in states — despite there being a reproductive rights champion in the White House for the majority of that time. None of these restrictions make abortion safer or “protect women,” as their drafters claim. And all of these restrictions were done even with the landmark ruling, Roe v. Wade, intact. If the ruling were weakened or overturned entirely, the damage would be dire. When you make any type of health care harder to get, you push it out of reach for people with low incomes and people of color. That’s the legacy of a health care system built on a discriminatory foundation. It means the white and/or wealthy can exercise their rights, and the Black, Brown or the poor disproportionately cannot.

While we all celebrate the return of decency and competence to the White House, abortion rights are not safe. State legislatures are back in session and politicians hostile to reproductive rights are back at work coming up with new ways to impose their personal and political beliefs on health care on the people of their state. 

In the middle of the 2020 holiday season, during a pandemic, Ohio politicians continued their assault on abortion access by passing a bill that bans the use of telemedicine for medication abortion

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This month, the General Assembly in Kentucky passed two bills restricting access to abortion care.

In Texas, lawmakers have filed a number of bills to limit abortion access, including one bill that would outlaw abortion after just 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In Arkansas, lawmakers recently filled S.B. 6, which would ban nearly all abortion procedures in the state unless the woman's life was in danger. The bill has no exceptions for rape or incest.

In South Carolina, politicians are quickly pushing a ban on abortion at just six weeks after conception — before many even know they’re pregnant. 

It won’t always be easy, but now is the time for all reproductive health care champions to stand up against these measures. We know what can happen when we demand our leaders create policy that actually makes people’s lives better. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) joined with a broad coalition to introduce the Reproductive Freedom Act (RFA). The RFA repeals harmful restrictions on abortion, such as medically unnecessary facility requirements and a ban on qualified, advanced clinicians providing abortion services. And in the final days of 2020, Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts and their state partners worked with state legislators to pass the ROE Act. The law ensures that families who receive a lethal fetal diagnosis later in pregnancy are not forced to travel out of state for the care they need. The act also ensures that young people are able to access abortion services without navigating a complex court system. 

We need other states to follow their lead. While Trump’s presidency is over, our rights will be at the mercy of judges and justices he put in place for decades to come. We still have work to do.

Rachel Sussman is the vice president of State Policy and Advocacy at Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF). Her expertise in abortion policy is instrumental to the organization's communications efforts and strategic initiatives, which seek to engage and mobilize elected officials and the public to ensure abortion remains accessible and more equitable for all.