The anti-abortion onslaught

March 30, 2011

As the right wing gears up for a new assault on abortion rights, the need to build a new movement for abortion rights is more urgent than ever.

"IT'S JUST this total onslaught." So said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, about the hundreds of anti-abortion bills currently making their way through state houses across the country.

A staggering 351 abortion-related bills are moving through state legislatures this year. More than half of states have at least one pending.

This barrage, led by Republicans, but abetted by Democrats, is calculated to further restrict abortion rights--to the point that, while legal in name, an ever-smaller portion women will actually be able to obtain a legal abortion. Yet the dire consequences for women's lives and health are starting to spur some into action--showing the potential for laying the groundwork for a new fight for abortion rights.

At their most vicious, the anti-choice bills making their way through the states seek to restrict a woman's right to abortion by adding burden on top of burden--limits on abortion after 20 weeks; longer mandatory waiting periods; restrictions on both public and private insurance coverage of abortions; requirements for pre-abortion ultrasounds (paid for out of pocket, of course); "counseling" from anti-choice operatives; and arcane building code requirements that are designed to shut down, in some states, the few remaining abortion providers who might be left.

Anti-choice bigots parade through San Francisco to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade
Anti-choice bigots parade through San Francisco to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade (Brian Ferrell)

The most restrictive law to go into effect so far is in South Dakota, where women seeking an abortion must first be "counseled" at a so-called "crisis pregnancy center" to learn what assistance is available "to help the mother keep and care for her child."

Such centers, usually run by religious groups, exist for the sole purpose of trying to pressure women against having an abortion, often using misleading information or flat-out lies--like, for example, that "abortion causes breast cancer."

In addition to this "counseling," South Dakota women, after an initial visit with an actual abortion provider, are then forced to wait three days before they can get an abortion--the longest waiting period in the U.S., and a tremendous burden on working-class women and their families.

As the New York Times pointed out, that burden is multiplied by the fact that there is just one clinic in the state--a Planned Parenthood located in Sioux Falls, S.D.--that performs non-emergency abortions.

Since no doctors locally are willing to perform abortions--the result of decades of anti-choice harassment and terrorism campaigns directed at abortion providers--Planned Parenthood is forced to fly in doctors each week from Minnesota, so women are often forced to actually wait for more than a week to receive an abortion.

As Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, told National Public Radio, "This law has nothing to do with a patient's well-being, but everything to do with endangering and humiliating women who seek abortion care."

THE SOUTH Dakota law is part of a broader set of laws making their way through the states that are part of a radical push to restrict abortion rights.

It's not only the number of bills, but the fact that, with large Republican gains in state legislatures and governor's races, conservatives feel emboldened to push their anti-abortion agenda. As noted: "Those on the anti-abortion side have little to lose by throwing whatever bills they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. Even if their measures conflict with Roe v. Wade, a subsequent court battle provides opportunities to publicize their position. And there's always the next session to revise the language and have another go."

As with the South Dakota law, many of these new restrictions would especially hurt working-class and poor women. In more than 20 states, for example, bills are pending that would restrict insurance coverage--often both public and private--of abortion.

"You could have nearly half the states where you couldn't buy regular insurance coverage for abortion, even with your own money," Donna Crane of NARAL Pro-Choice America told the Associated Press.

While many expected the election of Barack Obama and the tide of Democratic victories in 2008 to help stem the attacks on abortion rights, this latest onslaught has been aided and abetted by the Democrats, who signaled a willingness to roll over on abortion rights during the health care debate in the name of "political pragmatism"--and then never looked back.

As a party, the Democrats may be "pro-choice" in name--but the underlying political reality is that many similar attacks have been carried out under Democratic administrations, and often with the blessing of anti-abortion Democrats like former Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak.

Now the anti-choice crowd--which has spent more than three decades since the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion chipping away at choice by passing one restriction at a time--smells blood in the water.

"[I]t's moving faster than it has in previous years...We're very pleased with the progress thus far," Mary Spaulding Balch of the National Right to Life Committee smirked to the Associated Press.

What Balch considers "progress" is a nightmare for some people.

Like Danielle and Robb Deaver, a Nebraska couple who suffered complications during a pregnancy last year and found out that their 22-week fetus would have almost no chance of survival and would face tremendous physical deformities if it did.

But because the pregnancy had progressed past 20 weeks--the cutoff for abortions in Nebraska--Danielle was not allowed to terminate the pregnancy. Instead, she was sent home to wait. Eight days later, she went into pre-term labor and delivered the infant. She and her husband were then put through the agony of watching as their daughter struggled to breath for 15 minutes before finally dying.

"Our hands were tied," Danielle Deaver told the Des Moines Register in early March. "The outcome of my pregnancy, that choice was made by God. I feel like how to handle the end of my pregnancy, that choice should have been mine, and it wasn't, because of a law."

AT HEART, such laws treat women as little better than cattle, too stupid to decide when, how and under what terms to have a child--or not.

Yet while at least some portion of these bills might pass, the "abortion is murder" sentiment coming from the right remains at odds with the reality of most peoples' lives--even if anti-abortion forces have succeeded in gaining some ideological ground on abortion rights since Roe was decided in 1973.

Today, at least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45 and approximately one-third will have an abortion at some point. A majority of people continues to believe that abortion should be legal.

Very few people, even among those who claim to be "pro-life," would be sick enough to revel in the idea that Danielle and Robb Deaver should be forced to watch their infant daughter die an agonizing death. And it's hard to imagine the heartlessness of someone who would take comfort in the idea of a desperate teen visiting a back-alley abortionist or attempting to induce abortion herself because she knew she couldn't get permission for an abortion from her parents or a judge.

And millions have been rightly horrified about the recent Republican-led attack on federal funding of Planned Parenthood--which, it should be pointed out, does not use any federal funds for abortion, but does use federal funding for sex education, low-cost gynecological care, birth control and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, among other things.

In a positive development, students at college campuses across the U.S. participated in a video campaign in defense of Planned Parenthood. These activists are part of a new generation that is having to learn the hard lessons of fighting for abortion rights--that we must confront the right and refuse to stay silent when anti-abortion forces go on the offensive, even if we are the only voices speaking out.

We know what the alternative to safe, legal, affordable and accessible abortion services looks like--the black-and-white picture of single mother Rosie Jimenez, naked, bloody and dead on the floor of a Texas motel room in 1977 after a back alley abortion (because she couldn't afford a legal one after Medicaid funding was cut off). It's the agony of the women who were desperate enough to visit Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a back-alley butcher operating in Philadelphia, because they couldn't afford to get an abortion elsewhere or had passed the cutoff date for a legal abortion.

It is possible to fight back against the anti-abortion onslaught. In New York City, pro-choice activists succeeded in getting a racist anti-choice billboard taken down (similar billboards are now going up in Chicago). Thanks to pressure from activists, the New York City Council recently passed a law requiring deceptive "crisis pregnancy centers" to clearly post signs stating what services they do and don't provide--such as abortion or birth control.

In late February, a number of "Walk for Choice" marches took place in cities across the country--the first time in many years that such local, grassroots, pro-choice marches have been organized. There are plans for more in May.

These are small but important steps--and can be part of laying the groundwork for a movement that starts to push back the tide of anti-abortion attacks. As one participant in the recent Boston Walk for Choice said:

I'm so excited that there's an actual protest for abortion rights nationally. People are pissed off with a slew of legislation attacking abortion providers, redefining rape. People are saying that they aren't going to take it anymore...This is a beginning for a movement for abortion rights in this country.

Further Reading

From the archives