Looking back, 2015 was a roller-coaster year for reproductive rights across the United States. Activists saw two big legislative wins, despite almost 400 anti-abortion bills introduced and 47 passed in the states. Attacks on Planned Parenthood and independent providers ran the gamut from shootings to arson to seemingly perpetual hearings on Capitol Hill. Plus, Whole Woman’s Health is headed to the US Supreme Court in an attempt to restore access to abortion care in Texas. Again and again, in the face of intense attacks, activists rose to the occasion and continue to stand for reproductive justice for all.
Repro FACT Act in California
The year began with a major victory. In February, the California legislature introduced the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act to end the intentional misleading of potential patients, false advertising, intimidation tactics and coercion regularly employed by anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs).
The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) – the legal advocacy group that regularly represents pro-choice causes in court – was among those applauding such a simple, but powerful bill in a state where CPCs outnumber full-spectrum reproductive health facilities two to one.
“The FACT Act requires CPCs to inform women if they are not medically licensed or do not have a licensed medical provider on staff,” CRR explained in their year-end report “2015 State of the States: Fighting Back by Pushing Forward.” “Further, it requires facilities in the state that provide services related to pregnancy to inform clients about their reproductive rights in California and about state programs that are available to provide financial assistance for accessing reproductive health care.”
The law also forces CPCs to offer resources on abortion care – a bold provision. Assembly member David Chiu, the bill’s co-sponsor, explained in a press release why he was moved to introduce such unapologetic, comprehensive legislation: “We have a responsibility as lawmakers to make sure that the information given to women who are making their own healthcare decisions is accurate and timely.”
The bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October and promptly challenged by two religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations – A Woman’s Friend Pregnancy Resource Clinic and Crisis Pregnancy Center of Northern California – claiming that being forced to give accurate information on a patient’s condition and options violates the centers’ First Amendment right to religiously motivated delivery of anti-abortion messaging. In November, Scott Scharpen, associate pastor at Rock Valley Christian Church in Murrieta and founder of “Go Mobile for Life” – a mobile CPC that offers free ultrasounds – filed suit as well, refusing to post the newly required public notice stating all available reproductive health options.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris has vowed to “vigorously defend the state law in court.” This will be a case to watch in 2016, as it could be precedent setting.
EACH Woman Act
On July 8, a bill with the potential to become this country’s first federal affirmative right to abortion was introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-California), Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) with an unprecedented 70 congressional co-sponsors. The Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or “EACH Woman Act,” would nullify existing abortion coverage bans while preventing future legislation from blocking access to low-income people.
“This legislation would ensure that every woman can access all of her health-care options, regardless of how much money she earns or where she lives,” Lee said at the press conference introducing the bill. “Regardless of how someone personally feels about abortion, none of us, especially elected officials, should be interfering with a woman’s right to make her own health-care decision just because she is poor.”
Americans overwhelmingly agree with Lee’s statement, according to polling done by Hart Research Associates conducted on behalf of All* Above All, the coalition of reproductive rights and justice organizations united to end the Hyde Amendment and other insurance bans on abortion that disproportionately affect poor people, communities of color and young people. A full 86 percent of voters and 79 percent of self-identified Republicans agree that “politicians should not be allowed to deny a woman’s health coverage because she is poor.” And 74 percent of voters – including 62 percent of self-identified Republicans – agree that “as long as abortion is legal, the amount of money a woman has or does not have should not prevent her from being able to have an abortion.”
In other words, not only abortion rights but also abortion access has mainstream approval. This climate of affirmative public opinion has bolstered Representative Lee and All* Above All’s efforts to tack on additional co-sponsors; the tally has grown to 110 representatives from blue, purple and red states. With election season in full swing, co-sponsors will be forced to defend their names appearing on the most pro-abortion bill in history. So, even if it isn’t passed and signed this session, the shifts in public perception – as well as political and legislative support – mark a big step forward for reproductive justice efforts.
Planned Parenthood Videos and Hearings
In July, the agenda-driven and well-funded organization the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released the first in a series of heavily edited, coercively obtained “undercover” videos depicting a Planned Parenthood senior medical director discussing the process of donating fetal tissue to medical researchers. The rather graphic descriptions between a medical professional (the Planned Parenthood staffer) and someone impersonating a medical professional (the “undercover” CMP videographer) provided enough shock value to prompt more than 20 bills in state legislatures and a number of governors to attempt withholding Medicaid reimbursements to their state Planned Parenthood affiliates.
Nothing – not investigations, not facts or numbers – was able to stem the tide of attacks on Planned Parenthood and the nonexistent federal funds for abortion care. (The Hyde Amendment has been attached to every federal budget since 1976 and prevents federal funding for abortion.)
Medical professionals came forward. “Some viewers called the language used by the professionals in the video ‘cold and calculated.’ But as a physician who provides abortion care, I did not perceive anything shocking,” Dr. Leah Torres, a Salt Lake City, Utah, abortion provider, wrote at RH Reality Check. “I attribute this to the context of the conversation: business among colleagues, or at least those pretending to be.”
The full transcript of the videos was released, refuting much of the propaganda CMP and anti-abortion extremists and legislators were citing in an attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood and further eliminate access to reproductive health in the United States. CMP was even proven to have passed off a stolen photo of a stillbirth as the result of a surgical abortion – an unthinkable manipulation CMP’s CEO David Daleiden has since admitted to on CNN. CMP was shown to have public ties to radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue whose leader Troy Newman was supportive of Daleiden’s expressed purpose: “to completely destroy the entity called Planned Parenthood.”
The videos have been cited in false, anti-choice talking points in Republican presidential debates, used to justify attempts to defund and close Planned Parenthood clinics, and linked to violence against abortion providers, including the Colorado Springs shooting in late November.
Whole Woman’s Health Goes to SCOTUS
In October, the Supreme Court agreed to review Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole – its first abortion case in nearly a decade – and one that will determine whether abortion access is restored in Texas or jeopardized for the whole country.
The scope of the law in question – SB5, which was made famous by the filibuster efforts of State Sen. Wendy Davis and the “unruly mob” – is vast, and was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court on such awkwardly ideological grounds that legal experts don’t see a way for the Supreme Court to avoid touching on Roe v. Wade. As Supreme Court reporter Dahlia Lithwick put it at Slate, the SCOTUS ruling expected in June “will determine whether Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land or the remains of a hollow promise.”
All the focus will be on one man – Justice Anthony Kennedy – in this one case to determine the future of bodily autonomy for the country. Court watchers fall all over the map, from confident, because Kennedy’s name is on the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upholding the basic tenant of Roe, to sure of the worst, because he has only struck down one of 21 abortion restrictions before him as of two years ago. Among the 20 he upheld? A Planned Parenthood of Texas suit challenging a devastating admitting-privileges law in 2013.
What will happen in June is anyone’s guess.
Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Shooting
On November 27, Robert Lewis Dear Jr. exchanged gunfire with law enforcement from inside the bulletproof-glass-protected Colorado Springs, Colorado, Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people and wounding 12. He now faces 179 felony counts, including first-degree murder for an attack he orchestrated with an AK-47-style assault rifle, because he’s a self-proclaimed “warrior for the babies.”
Dear reportedly said “no more baby parts” as he was being arrested the day of the attack, a reference to the doctored videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) earlier in the year (see above), which include video from the Colorado Springs clinic. Despite additional outbursts, such as “Protect the babies!” and “You’ll never know what I saw in the clinic, the atrocities,” officials continue to ascribe a motive – almost as though the shooting happened without context or warning, despite an abundance of both.
The National Abortion Federation reported incidents of harassment against Planned Parenthood clinics increased ninefold in July compared to June, with even more happening in August. Over the summer, hackers claimed to have outed Planned Parenthood employee data – a dangerous assertion considering eight abortion providers (four doctors, two receptionists, a security guard and a clinic escort) have been murdered in this country. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports four arsons at Planned Parenthood clinics in the first 74 days following the release of the CMP videos – assaults they classify as terrorism. An FBI intelligence assessment released in September attempted to warn law enforcement that they were recording an increase in attacks on reproductive health-care facilities. The language is unequivocal: “[I]t is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities.”
The escalation is clear and part of an even broader trend. The data from the most recent National Clinic Access Project survey from the Feminist Majority Foundation reports that nearly 68 percent of reproductive health clinics nationwide experience frequent and regular anti-abortion activity. And barely two weeks after Colorado Springs, a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was attacked. No one was injured and a 43-year-old St. Louis woman has been arrested, but thousands of dollars in damage to a facility in an underserved area can be devastating. With a 72-hour waiting period between a patient’s first appointment and the termination, anything that temporarily closes a clinic can as much as double the cost of a procedure and/or make logistics like travel, lodging, child care and time off work impossible barriers to overcome.
The mass shooting in Colorado Springs should not be seen as an isolated incident; unfortunately, there’s nothing to suggest a trend reversal heading into 2016.
GOP Attempts to Defund Planned Parenthood
Attempts to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding ($528 million in 2014) have become almost too numerous to track. From budget reconciliation packages to straight-up votes to defund the country’s largest reproductive health-care provider to the House GOP’s formation of what RH Reality Check termed a “Benghazi-like committee” to investigate already debunked claims from doctored “undercover” videos, the GOP has spent the second half of 2015 creating new ways to conduct witch hunts.
For starters, the US House approved the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015 (HR 3134) in a vote of 241-187 on September 18, which, if enacted, could result in as many as 650,000 Americans losing access to preventative care, and potentially several thousand more unintended pregnancies being carried to term, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conducted hearings in September – which included the widely covered testimony from Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards – ostensibly to determine how the highly regulated and continually audited health-care provider uses its federal dollars.
Immediately following those hearings, the House voted in October to create a select committee to investigate abortion practices and fetal tissue donation through a 14-member panel under the Energy and Commerce Committee. This new committee puts the three other House committee investigations “under one umbrella” and grants it unprecedented, unilateral subpoena powers, according to Democrats.
Then, six days after the Colorado Springs shooting on December 3, Senate Republicans included language to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding in a bill to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act – something the GOP has tried to do in whole or part 56 times since the health-care expansion became law. The repeal passed 52-47, but won’t survive the president’s expected veto.
At last count, eight states have conducted their own costly investigations into Planned Parenthood affiliates and also found an unsurprising lack of evidence that the facilities do anything but provide preventative care to underserved Medicaid patients (the funding for which the state officials were supposedly trying to reduce). Several states decided to just not pay the Medicaid reimbursement claims from Planned Parenthood clinics – a violation of federal law, which required some affiliates to sue to reinstate payment.
Despite the public’s opinion of Planned Parenthood actually improving over the course of the CMP video slander attempt and false accusations about mishandling of medical waste donated for research – not to mention a 100 percent failure rate on investigations and hearings up to this point – extremist officials continue to hold the line. Just three days after the Colorado Springs shooting, Colorado State Sen. Kevin Lundberg vowed to demand an investigation from the chief medical officer into whether Planned Parenthood had broken state laws concerning fetal tissue research.
Considering the ability of the GOP presidential potentials to cling to debunked talking points and their overwhelming support for defunding Planned Parenthood as a group, it’s hard to envision the political attacks that fuel the physical attacks letting up in the new year.
400 Bills Introduced, 47 Laws Enacted
This year started with a full slate of anti-choice legislation right out of the gate. In just the first quarter of 2015, 332 anti-abortion provisions were introduced in 43 states. The deliberate grouping of “targeted regulation of abortion providers” (TRAP) laws continued until state legislatures ended their sessions with almost 400 bills introduced and 47 new restrictions on access to reproductive health care enacted.
On December 7, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) issued a year-end report, “2015 State of the States: Fighting Back by Pushing Forward” – a 32-page document outlining the scope of the harmful legislation, bright spots, role of the courts, and a summary of completed and ongoing abortion rights litigation. The burden of urgency for patients affected by TRAP laws, which CRR describes as “politically motivated restrictions that do not apply to any other similar health care, interfere with patient’s personal decision-making, and ultimately block access to abortion care,” was drastically increased this year.
All eyes are on 2016 to see if this year finally reverses the trend that has only intensified since the Tea Party wave of the 2010 midterms. A record-setting 231 abortion restrictions were passed from 2011 through 2014, which makes 2015 part of the new normal. Extremist legislators seem determined to continue pushing the undefined legal standard of “undue burden” far enough to demand the courts to decide once and for all how many hurdles people must clear to access abortion care.
Congressional leadership hasn’t announced its priorities for the coming year, but a clear and unrelenting precedent has been set and the GOP controls both the House and Senate. People who care about reproductive health care should plan to watch their statehouses and Washington, DC, from the jump of the new legislative session.