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New Year, Same as the Old Year? 2015 Reproductive Rights Preview

Reproductive justice advocates are going to be working overtime to fight harmful legislation.

The five bills introduced in the opening two days of the legislative session - including the very first one to hit the floor of the House - would impose all manner of restrictions on access to safe, legal abortion care from coast to coast. (Photo: Ann Harkness)

As the book closed on 2014, pro-choice advocates and activists around the country exhaustedly celebrated as the worst four-year period for reproductive rights in more than a generation became a memory.

For a brief moment, everyone thought: The 231 abortion restrictions passed since the 2010 midterms is a record that couldn’t possibly be repeated, let alone outdone, right? Surely with all the expensive lawsuits weaving their way through the circuit courts and cost-conscious conservatives manning the state houses as well as the federal legislature, another record-breaking year of anti-choice laws was essentially inconceivable.

And then the 114th Congress took their hands off their Bibles, moved into their new offices, and watched as Speaker Boehner and new Senate Majority Leader McConnell picked up their gavels. It became immediately clear that reproductive justice advocates are going to be working overtime to fight harmful legislation while doing the long-term work of changing the culture by ending stigma around abortion.

The five bills introduced in the opening two days of the legislative session – including the very first one to hit the floor of the House – would impose all manner of restrictions on access to safe, legal abortion care from coast to coast. Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) reintroduced the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” to outlaw abortion after 20-weeks. Not to be outdone, Sen. David Vitter (R-IA) unleashed a four-pack of bills to accomplish everything from eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood and requiring admitting privileges for all providers to outlawing sex-selective abortion (which isn’t an actual problem in the US) and allowing doctors and nurses to refuse abortion care in life-threatening situations.

“At this rate, the new Congress is introducing an anti-women’s health bill every single day that they’re in session,” Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in a briefing.

The bills continue to come at break-neck speed. And despite presidential promises (and a stigma-reinforcing, but unapologetic use of the word “abortion” in the State of the Union this week) to veto extreme legislation, the GOP shows no signs of stopping the onslaught. Whether or not the bills will become law – yet – isn’t affecting the motivation of single-minded politicians, whose timing reveals a complete lack of historical awareness.

Voting was originally slated to take place today – on the 42nd anniverary of Roe v. Wade. Both the goal and the timing of the legislation didn’t sit well with pro-choice champions in Congress or reproductive health organizations.

Yesterday, senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) joined representatives Alma Adams (D-NC) and Steve Cohen (D-TN) on the Hill for a press conference denouncing both the substance and the timing of the anti-choice legislation. They stood with Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and members of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, National Women’s Health Network, Center for Reproductive Rights, National Abortion Federation, CREDO, and UltraViolet to demand Congress do something besides wasting time attempting to restrict the rights of the Americans who elected them. And they brought over 140,000 signatures from voters asking Sen. Mitch McConnell to say no to abortion bans.

Sen. Murray’s remarks were clear:

Congress should be focused on growing the economy- not attacking a woman’s right to make choices about her body. Politicians should not put themselves in the way of women’s lives and their most difficult health care decisions. I encourage Senate Republicans to work with us to move our country forward, not backward, for women and families.

Sen. Blumenthal announced legislation of his own to counter the GOP attacks on reproductive healthcare access: “I’ve reintroduced ‘The Women’s Health Protection Act‘ because a woman’s rights should not depend on her ZIP code.”

Without proactive legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act, ZIP code will continue having everything to do with whether or not Americans have accessible abortion care. The GOP leadership’s overnight decision to swap the 20-week “pain capable” ban for a bill to prohibit insurance coverage for abortion care would affect even ZIP code lottery winners.

According to NARAL, the new bill – H.R.7 – breathes new life into the failed Stupak-Pitts amendment to the Affordable Care Act. So much for the free market and individual consumer choice. Prohibiting insurance companies from covering abortion care could jeopardize those who’s ACA plans include abortion as well as those who have private insurance purchased individually or provided through an employer.

NARAL president Ilyse Hogue calls the new bill “equally bad policy.”

“H.R.7 will not only limit women’s ability to make health care choices it will also raise taxes on small business who provide comprehensive health care to their employees. Banning abortion and raising taxes on small business share one thing in common: they are about as far as the GOP can get from the priorities of the American people.

Let’s be clear, switching from one bad abortion ban bill to another will not solve their political problem. The problem is not their rhetoric, it’s their policies. If this bill were ever to become law, it would hurt millions. But that will not happen. This bill will not become law.”

The guarantee of a presidential veto hasn’t stopped the current Republican party from wasting tax payer time introducing and passing bills that will never become law. Fifty-four votes to repeal the ACA in the past four years make that abundantly clear. Hogue rightly calls this “pro-life” posturing a “sad waste of time” designed to pander to the anti-choice demonstrators in Washington for their annual march as well as the big money donors their presidential hopefuls will need in a few months.

“On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, today’s action in the House is a vivid reminder of the constant attack women are under from politicians who—unlike most Americans—refuse to trust us and allow us to control our own bodies and make our own decisions about our lives,” said Hogue.

The GOP-lead 114th Congress seems more determined to prove those words true than ever. All the new bills, all the posturing, all the faux concern for human life – is only the beginning of what’s coming in 2015.

Things aren’t looking any better at the state level. According to RH Reality Check, we may be heading into the worst year ever for abortion restrictions. Again. The team of reporters and legal analysts there are watching for legislation in Florida, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Texas. Promises have been made by office holders funded by Americans United For Life, the National Right to Life Committee, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Susan B. Anthony List. Those groups hold candidates accountable at election time when they don’t follow through, so the strings attached to the money hold real power.

As if the legislation in the pipeline didn’t provide enough reproductive healthcare watching for the year, there is also all the action in the courts.

Jessica Mason Pieklo, Senior Legal Analyst for RH Reality Check, has her eye on two areas of the country in particular:

“Specifically with regard to abortion rights I’m watching the admitting privileges and other TRAP [targeted regulation of abortion providers] law challenges in the federal appeals courts like the Fifth Circuit. Those are very direct attacks on abortion access that while not likely to overrule Roe directly, have the effect of gutting whatever is left of its promise. On the flip side is the fight in the Eight Circuit over blatantly unconstitutional pre-viability bans in Arkansas and North Dakota. In those cases, anti-choice attorneys are directly attacking Roe, arguing that fetal viability should begin at conception, which would effectively grant states the power to ban abortion outright.”

The way that court decisions cause ripple effects throughout the country makes these cases relevant to people living outside their immediate reach. Purvey Patel, an Indiana woman charged with felony neglect of a dependent and feticide, is fighting for her life and to keep personhood from being made law via backdoor methods.

Patel delivered a stillborn fetus at home, which shouldn’t be a crime. She sought medical care and, after telling her doctor that she had put the fetus in a bag and placed it in a dumpster, her physician went in search of the evidence. Police were alerted and then, instead of being attended to for grief and medical needs, she was arrested. The charges could result in a 20-50 year sentence for what should have been a private medical situation. The felony neglect statute requires there to be a living child, so the state of Indiana is bending over backwards in an attempt to prove there was a live birth. A successful prosecution could lead to even more policing of pregnant people, making this a reproductive justice issue.

“Jury selection [for Patel] begins on the Roe anniversary which seems to tragically sum up the lack of reproductive freedoms for so many people in this country, but especially for women of color,” said Pieklo.

The Center for Reproductive Rights staff of advocates and litigators are focused on the Arkansas and South Dakota cases Pieklo cited as well as on unnecessary admitting privileges provisions and ambulatory surgical center requirements in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, describes the specific situation in Oklahoma – circumstances that resonate in all the regions affected by the cases CRR is involved with – as increasingly dire.

“Oklahoma women now face ever-shrinking access to essential health care in a region already devastated by similar restrictions,” said Northrup. “With their options rapidly disappearing, women will soon have few places left to turn when they need to end a pregnancy safely and legally. Legal challenges to laws like this have exposed the disingenuousness of the politicians who claim they are about protecting women’s health and safety. We are confident this court will see through the pretense and block this law before it damages the health and rights of Oklahoma women.”

With the new year looking increasingly like the old year, it’s clear that fighting legislative battles and challenging laws in court could become a never-ending process. Rights can be declared by our judicial system, but they are rarely affirmed and cemented there. The only way this cycle ends and a technical right to safe, legal abortion care transforms into a guarantee of access and availability is through culture change.

Organizations like the Sea Change Program are working toward culture change by studying stigma and teaching others how to combat it.

“At the Sea Change Program, we believe that abortion is not just a medical procedure or political issue, it is a social and emotional experience that is embedded in a cultural context,” said deputy director Steph Herold. “Without addressing the culture, our work for justice and access cannot be fully achieved.”

Abortion speak outs and bus tours from groups like Advocates For Youth and All* Above All are part of a growing movement using storytelling to fight stigma and create grassroots support for abortion. They aren’t waiting for the politicians to get on board; they’re leading the way.

Culture change strategies work to address variables like isolation, compassion fatigue and burn out, negative attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes, and myths and misperceptions, particularly in our communities and in the media,” explained Herold. “Without addressing culture change in a measured, targeted way, it will be really difficult for our movement to make long-lasting deep change on abortion rights in this country.”

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