Stealing Roe one law at a time

January 22, 2014

The assault on reproductive rights is tied to the attack on working-class living standards.

STATE BY state and procedure by procedure, a woman's right to abortion is disappearing, as the Religious Right tries to make its fanatical anti-women ideology the law of the land.

Forty-one years after Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, the attacks on reproductive rights are escalating--so much so that, according to a recent study, more legislation restricting abortion has been passed in the last three years than in the decade before that.

According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, over the course of 2013, 39 states enacted 141 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Half of these provisions--70 in 22 states--restricted access to abortion services. Some 205 abortion restrictions went into effect between 2011 and 2013, compared to 189 between 2001 and 2010.

To cite one of the best-known assaults on choice, a raft of restrictions on abortion and abortion providers passed in Texas last year, forcing many clinics to close when they couldn't meet new regulations on their operations. Today, women living in some parts of the state must drive over 100 miles to obtain an abortion. In the Rio Grande Valley, home to 275,000 women of reproductive age, there is no abortion provider.

Standing up for abortion rights in the Bay Area
Standing up for abortion rights in the Bay Area (Steve Rhodes)

"Women of means will travel, or they'll leave Texas and go elsewhere," Whole Woman's Health CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller told the Atlantic. "But for a huge percentage of the population, you'll see a bunch of people having children they didn't want and didn't intend to have."

This attack on a woman's right to choose comes at the same time as an assault on working-class living standards--most obviously, with the government at all levels shredding what remains of the social safety net for families.

Put another way: At the very same time as the burden of caring for families grows heavier because government programs to help working and poor Americans are cut, working families are faced with fewer and fewer reproductive options.

Despite the "pro-family, pro-life" rhetoric used by the Religious Right and right-wing politicians to further their anti-women legislative attacks, this assault is only making the problems of working families worse, leaving women in particular to fend for themselves.

The attack on reproductive rights is an attack on working-class women and their families. Unfortunately, however, it isn't viewed that way by the majority of Democratic Party politicians, who have refused to stand up against the tide of restrictions pushed through by the right wing.

The one exception is Texas, where state Sen. Wendy Davis led a filibuster against the anti-abortion legislation pushed by anti-choice Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican majority in the legislature. In the end, Perry got his bill signed into law, but not before igniting a struggle that mobilized thousands of Texans to protest, inside and outside the Capitol building.

It was this mobilization--of ordinary people whose lives would be directly impacted by the law--that forced Democratic politicians and their supporters to actually take a stand.

FROM THE day Roe made abortion legal throughout the U.S., the Religious Right has been determined to turn back the clock. They understood that they couldn't ban abortion rights outright--not in the context of a vibrant women's liberation movement that had galvanized public support behind a woman's right to make her own decisions about her body.

Instead, they settled on a strategy of whittling away at abortion rights. The first restriction was a ban on Medicaid funding for abortion sponsored by Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, which made it almost impossible for poor women to afford to obtain legal abortions.

The restrictions continued, one after another--from mandatory waiting periods to bans on certain types of abortions to ultrasound requirements and parental consent laws. Taken together, they began to cripple women's access to abortion--something Rick Perry recognized when he told supporters last year: "My goal, and the goal of all of us who are gathered here today, is to make abortion at any stage a thing of the past. The ideal world is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure that they are as rare as possible."

The report from the Guttmacher Institute confirms the success of the right wing's campaign.

The proportion of women of reproductive age living in states that are considered hostile to abortion grew from 31 percent in 2000 to 56 percent in 2013, according to the report. Four types of legislative restrictions dominated in 2013, making up more than half of the limits enacted over the year: abortion bans, restrictions on abortion providers, limitations on the provision of medication abortion, and restrictions on the coverage of abortion in private health plans.

Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, laws can effectively close down clinics that fail to meet onerous rules. The regulations on abortion providers are supposedly necessary for women's safety, according to their proponents. Ultimately, however, it's women who pay the price.

"It's a brilliant strategy to package these laws as just making sure abortion is 'safe,' [and] in many states, they've been able to sell it that way," Eric Ferrero, the vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone. But as Reitman reported:

[A]bortion is already safe. The mortality rate for abortions is less than .67 per 100,000 procedures. By comparison, the mortality rate for colonoscopies, also commonly performed in outpatient clinics, but not subject to similar restrictions, is about 20 out of 100,000.

One of the most cynical--and destructive--targets of the anti-abortion fanatics is bans on late-term abortions--what they call "partial birth" abortions. Over the last few decades, the "right to life" movement has made demonized this seldom-used but absolutely necessary procedure, claiming that it "kills babies."

Late-term abortions are typically performed in heartbreaking cases when a woman's life is in danger or the fetus is unable to live outside the mother's womb. But after the Religious Right's campaign, there are now only four late-term abortion providers in the entire U.S. That's one fewer after 2009, when an anti-abortion monster assassinated Dr. George Tiller.

Barack Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), looked like it would improve reproductive health care by guaranteeing women access to contraception and abortion. But the Obama administration responded to pressure from the Conference of Catholic Bishops and compromised. The end result: women's reproductive rights were bargained away in order to save the ACA.

Because the anti-abortion side has been willing to fight, rather than compromise, they've been successful in spreading a message that demonizes abortion. That message has gained a lot of ideological ground, despite its many lies and distortion--because the pro-choice side has not been willing to stand up and fight unapologetically for the right to abortion.

There were glimpses of what could turn the tide in Texas' Capitol building protests last year--as women spoke out about what the right wing's restrictions would mean for their lives. While the fight in Texas was ultimately lost, it serves an as example of what a defiant movement for reproductive justice could look like.

AT THE same time as women's access to abortion is coming under attack, working-class women and their families are facing a continual downward pressure on their living standards.

The release of the latest Shriver Report sounded the alarm about the number of women who are barely squeaking by: It found that women make up about two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country, and 70 percent of those low-wage workers who have no paid sick days.

Compounding this situation are the cuts in government programs designed to help working people and the most vulnerable, like Congress' recent reductions in funding for food stamps--a program that women are about twice as likely to depend upon as men.

Add in the assault on women's reproductive choices, and the Catch 22 is complete: Women are being denied the resources they need to care for more children at the same time as they are being denied access to abortion and contraception.

The U.S. government's warped priorities when it comes to the reproductive needs of poor and working-class women couldn't be clearer. On the one hand, the Hyde Amendment denying poor women federal funding for abortion (except in a few cases that meet strict requirements) is affirmed by Congress time and time again. But at the same time, sterilization--a procedure that has a history of being used against poor women, particularly Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, in the U.S.--is federally funded. Public spending on sterilization services totaled $93 million, 95 percent of which was through Medicaid, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

For women to have real reproductive choices, they must be able to afford them.

Access to abortion and contraception and the ability to make our own reproductive decisions is fundamental to women's quality of life. For that reason, these are not simply "women's issues," but must be part of any discussion about economic justice and improving workers' lives.

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