Speaking of Women's Rights: What is a right without access? As states whittle away at abortion rights, is the right meaningful anymore?

Monday, July 22, 2013

What is a right without access? As states whittle away at abortion rights, is the right meaningful anymore?

By Laurel Jones

The past few weeks have been exceptionally tumultuous for reproductive rights advocates around the country as many state governments have hurried to finish their legislative sessions. While some states have struggled merely to pass budgets, others have called for extended special legislative sessions solely for the purpose of passing controversial laws that severely impede a woman’s right to seek safe and legal abortion care. Texas House Bill 2 was passed by the state legislature on July 12, 2013, despite an almost 11-hour filibuster by Rep. Wendy Davis and massive public backlash. The Texas bill is only one of several significant laws that have been enacted in the 11th hour of states’ legislative sessions over past month. In particular, four states – Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin – have all spent the last few weeks pushing through restrictive laws that hinder the ability of women in those states to access to abortions.

These laws are the latest, and frighteningly successful, efforts of anti-choice officials to chip away at the rights of women who seek abortion care. These unnecessary regulations create a myriad of new barriers, including a ban on all abortion procedures past 20 weeks, requiring that all clinics be certified as ambulatory surgical centers, barring public hospitals from entering into emergency care agreements with abortion clinics, and requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

A multifaceted attack on abortion rights: Two types of laws, same effect for women

Gestational-age bans

Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, abortions could be restricted to protect potential life after the point of fetal viability (at or around 24 weeks, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.) The Supreme Court has yet to hear a challenge on any of the many recent laws, such as Texas HB 2, that restrict abortions well before the point of fetal viability. Despite the fact that these early-gestational bans impose significant restrictions on the right to an abortion well before the point of fetal viability, these laws will remain in place until they are successfully challenged and struck down by the courts; similar gestational-age bans have already been overturned by an Idaho district court and in Arizona by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But for women living in states where these laws are still valid, those who require abortion services after the point at which the law takes effect (e.g., 20 weeks) will be forced to carry the pregnancy to term, travel out-of-state in order to seek a safe abortion elsewhere, or seek an illegal abortion.

Legislative attacks on abortion clinics

Similar to the gestational-age bans on abortion services, these new attacks on abortion clinics requiring new and unnecessary services, certifications, permits, zoning permission, and other regulations have a significant effect on the ability of women to seek the medical care they require.

Texas HB 2 will likely cause all but 5 of the state’s abortion clinics to close for no other reason than the imposition of unnecessary regulatory requirements that clinics will not be able to comply with before the law takes effect. This means that women will have to travel over 300 miles in order to reach the nearest abortion clinic, which requires time, money, and the ability to leave home, possibly for days at a time.

In Fairfax, Virginia, for the city’s sole abortion clinic, a new law changing the zoning and permitting requirements for abortion clinics may prove to be financially and logistically prohibitive. The clinic is already being forced to relocate after having their current lease terminated due to the disruption caused by anti-choice protesters. With the new municipal regulations in place, the clinic may not be granted the permits necessary to reopen in a new location.

Bottom line: the impact of these state and local laws may prove to be that clinics are forced to close their doors, making abortions either illegal or inaccessible to women.
These laws may be passed under the guise of “protecting maternal health”, but statistics have repeatedly shown that abortion is 14 times safer than carrying a pregnancy through to labor and delivery. These new laws dictating additional certifications and requirements are not about protecting women as anti-choice lawmakers would have us believe – they are about preventing abortions.

Women have the right to decide when – and if – to have children, including the right to terminate a pregnancy. But this right means nothing if it is in words alone. The right to make these intrinsically private decisions about one’s life, body, and family is being systematically stripped away by denying women access to the safe, legal abortion care they deserve. As reproductive justice advocates, we have a responsibility to fight back against these laws – to protect the clinics dedicated to providing safe, legal abortion care, and to guarantee that women have the ability to exercise their legal right to choose. 

Laurel Jones is a rising third-year law student at the University of Washington, and is loving her experience as a summer intern at Legal Voice. She has spent over four years working to provide housing and human services for Seattle’s homeless population, and is committed to using her legal career to fight for reproductive justice, economic equality, and human rights. Laurel has a BA from the University of Washington in International Studies. 

photo credit here