By Lauren Kelley and Sarah Seltzer
Republicans sure have interesting priorities. Even though they got elected on a fiscal agenda and arrived in legislatures and Congress with a budget crisis and a nation staring down unemployment, they’ve decided to put policing women’s bodies on the top of their agenda.
You’ve probably heard about the unbelievably dismal new “
” bill—it’s cruel and draconian, to say the least. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Smit, R-NJ, the bill is referred to as “Stupak on Steroids” by Naral Pro-Choice America. If implemented (which it likely will not be), it would further strip abortion funding by denying subsidies to all insurers who cover abortion—and making it difficult for people using their health savings accounts to pay for the procedure—thereby doing all the damage projected from the Stupak amendment and more. Even more galling, the bill initially contained language that would redefine rape exceptions for federal funding as only applicable to “forcible” rape, leaving most instances of sexual assault in a gray area when it comes to abortion funding. As Nick Baumann, who first reported the story in Mother Jones, notes:
“This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion…Other types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes…”
As Baumann’s examples demonstrate, even if the use of the term “forcible” was accidental in intention or not really meant to be codified into law, the language was dangerous just in its vagueness and openness to interpretation. Prominent feminist bloggers, including Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon, launched a
Twitter campaign to protest the entire bill (the “John” in question being Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner), while
specifically targeting the rape language, which garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
In addition, several congresspeople have stepped to the fore to explain that even though the bill has little chance, it’s horribly pernicious. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., spoke emphatically against this bill, saying, “I consider the proposal of this bill a violent act against women” and adding that it’s an example of the encroaching power of the radical right-wing agenda against women, and the immediate social priorities of Republicans who were elected on a platform of fiscal austerity but carried with them an extreme right-wing set of social beliefs. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-NY, tweeted about her outrage against “the Republican House’s extreme attempts to limit women’s access to reproductive care,” adding, “We will stop these bills in the Senate.”
Eventually, the bill’s sponsors caved on the “forcible rape” language. “The word ‘forcible’ will be replaced with the original language from the Hyde Amendment,” Jeff Sagnip, spokesman for Rep. Smith, told Politico.
But the bill is still extraordinarily troubling. Both the funding and rape provisions in the bill represent an incursion into previously neutral territory. For several decades, the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal dollars from going to abortions, has been a settled no-go zone between abortion rights advocates and abortion foes. And during that time, rape and incest and threats to the health of mother or to the fetus have been settled exceptions to the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding going to abortion, resulting in fewer than 200 medicare-funded abortions in 2006, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And so the straw-man issue of “federally funded abortions” is practically a non-issue to begin with.
As Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, points out, federal funding for abortion “is already against the law. It has been against the law. It continues to be against the law.”
The Hyde Amendment itself remains deeply problematic, turning abortion into a privilege for those who have money and access rather than a basic right, in line with other standard medical care. The reproductive justice movement, born out of organizing efforts by women of color, has long fought against the discrimination embedded in Hyde, and many feminists were disturbed by President Obama’s assurances that Hyde was a settled compromise. Because while pro-choice politicians like Obama are OK with the discriminatory statute as a compromise, his opponents are not.
From the Stupak amendment through HR3—the evidence is that Hyde is no longer enough for the right wing. HR3 will target all insurance coverage for abortion, and even decades of rape awareness activism as well. Indeed, “abortion” is now being used as a wedge-word to undermine all health care for women and women’s rights on the whole.
Though HR3 is likely to be defeated, it is not a stand-alone attack—in fact, it’s part of a broad-reaching movement from state legislatures to curb abortion access and insurance coverage, place hurdles before and infantilize women with ultrasound and parental notification requirements, and generally prove that shaming women is much more important to Republicans than tackling the economic crisis or any of the myriad other problems facing Americans today.
All across the country, legislatures are moving abortion restrictions forward on the docket, and although there are a few bright spots, overall the picture is pretty grim. Even The New York Times editorial board is up in arms after its own paper’s story on the subject, offering us some frightening statistics:
Twenty-nine governors are considered solidly anti-abortion, up from 21 before the election. In 15 states, both the legislature and the governor are anti-abortion, compared with 10 last year. This math greatly increases the prospect of extreme efforts to undermine abortion access with Big Brother measures that require physicians to read scripts about fetal development and provide ultrasound images, and that impose mandatory waiting periods or create other unnecessary regulations.
The following pieces of legislation are not the only efforts that could quash women’s rights this year, but they are indicative of a bold, cruel and determined Republican-led movement happening across the country. If successful, these laws will make it unimaginably more difficult for women to access basic health care.
Here in New Mexico, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is one of many anti-choice state leaders to have been sworn in following the November elections. Martinez, who has said she opposes pro-choice legislation because women rely on abortions as a “form of contraception,” supports legislation requiring the parental notification of women under the age of 18 before they can receive an abortion.
So it is disappointing, though not surprising, that the New Mexico Legislature is now considering a parental notification bill—disappointing because, as
, such measures have little to no effect on reducing abortion rates, and they force many young women, including those whose parents are abusive, to have children against their will. According to one study by Baruch College researchers, parental notification laws in Texas reduced the overall number of abortions in the state, but they also increased the number of young women seeking “late-term” abortions by one-third. And a New York Times study of several states found only a “scant decrease” in total abortion rates, as well as no decrease in teen pregnancies.
New Mexico’s parental notification bill was introduced by state Sen. William Sharer, R-San Juan, who has, in fact, been busy introducing a spate of anti-choice legislation over the past month. Bill SB 239 would prohibit “late-term” abortions (defined in this case as an abortion in which the fetus is “viable”—a medical, not a legal, term), while a separate piece of legislation would prohibit all abortions after 20 weeks (the generally-accepted point of viability is at least 23 weeks). Meanwhile, yet another bill, SB 225, would put bizarre restrictions on abortion clinic staff, barring them from “intentionally and repeatedly contact[ing] a person against the person’s wishes.”
Most outrageously, a bill called HB 30, or the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” defines a fetus as an “unborn child” and states that “[w]hoever commits murder of an unborn child in the first degree is guilty of a capital felony” (
In Kansas, Republican state Rep. Lance Kinzer introduced a particularly draconian parental notification bill, which would require women under the age of 18 to receive the explicit consent of both parents before seeking an abortion. Exceptions would only be made in cases in which “family sexual abuse” is involved, and even then women would need the approval of one parent. The bill’s supporters cite false and misleading data about how young women who have abortions are more likely to have mental health issues than those who carry their pregnancies to term—when in fact, the exact opposite is true, according to a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
What’s more, the Times reports that Kansas’ new governor, former Sen. Sam Brownback, plans to lead the state Legislature in adopting measures that were previously vetoed by his less conservative successors, “including regulations that will make it harder to open abortion clinics or to perform abortions in the second trimester.”
Kansas already has some of the most regressive abortion laws in the country; for instance, the state will not allow a women to seek an abortion after the point of viability unless two separate doctors agree that she risks “irreparable harm” by giving birth.
In Arkansas, a troubling bill that’s now on its way to the state Senate floor would severely limit abortion coverage under private insurance plans. CNBC reports that the proposed bill “takes advantage of a part of the federal health care overhaul that allows states to restrict abortion coverage by private plans in the new insurance exchanges” and, if passed, would require women to purchase a special rider or policy if they ever plan to get an abortion. Similar laws have already been enacted in several other states, but as National Abortion Federation President Vicki Saporta notes, “Telling a woman to buy a separate abortion rider that doesn’t even currently exist is not an answer.”
In Kentucky, the state is the second, after Oklahoma, to pass legislation requiring women not only to undergo an ultrasound before seeking an abortion (as is the case in many states), but to actually be shown the ultrasound screen while a technician describes the fetus in detail. If a woman chooses to avert her eyes from the screen, she will still be subjected to the technician’s description. Kentucky women also will be required to wait 24 hours before they can receive an abortion procedure.
Outrageously, there is no exemption in the bill for cases of rape or incest. Doctors who disobey the law face fines of up to $250,000.
Although Oklahoma’s bill is being challenged in court, Kentucky’s anti-choice “victory” has prompted a number of other states—including Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming—to consider similar legislation.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry is supporting a bill similar to Kentucky’s, which would require women who seek abortions to undergo forced ultrasounds, listen to the fetal heartbeat, and have the fetus described to them in detail hours before a scheduled abortion procedure. In fact, Perry is not only supporting the legislation, but declaring it an “emergency” priority, hinting to anti-choicers in the state that he’ll fast-track the bill for passage, even though the state is faced with an actual emergency—a budget shortfall of up to $27 billion (that’s billion with a B).
And he’s doing this even though he’s previously threatened to secede due to excessive government oversight of his state. Apparently oversight of states is not OK, but oversight of women’s bodies is?
Perry’s track record on reproductive rights is already dismal, having implemented the country’s most stringent restrictions on late-term abortions and strict parental consent rules. He also supports abstinence-only-until-marriage education for teens—which clearly doesn’t work, since Texas has some of the highest rates of teen motherhood in the country.
New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state, has conservative leanings, but has thus far refrained from policing women’s bodies, embracing a libertarian ethos toward the issue, as it does to many others.
But the state’s first major anti-abortion law could be on its way. Although state legislators claim to be focused on financial issues, they’ve hinted that “social issues,” like abortion, are on the radar. Specifically, New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’Brien says he anticipates the introduction of a parental notification act—yet another law that would make life extremely difficult for minors who may be faced with disapproving, controlling or even abusive parents.
The state has held out against such legislation in the past, so why the change? Women’s eNews reports that “proponents think they’ll finally be able to get [a parental notification law] passed, not only because Republicans control the Senate but also because men are now the majority, unlike in 2008 when the Senate was female dominant.”
That’s certainly depressing, but hopefully some conservative women will help stem the anti-choice tide, as has happened in the past. Take Wyoming, where an anti-choice ultrasound law (which would have severely hampered women traveling across the state for an abortion) was voted down, and several Republican women spoke up against it. While we hold out for that reality, Change.org is circulating a petition asking New Hampshire to stay true to its flinty nature and keep its legislative paws off of young women’s bodies.
In Idaho, a pharmacist recently refused to fill a prescription written by a Planned Parenthood nurse for a bleeding woman, citing the state’s “conscience” law because the woman may have had an abortion. The pharmacist reportedly asked the woman seeking the prescription (for Methergine, which is used to control uterine bleeding after childbirth and abortion) if she needed the medicine for post-abortive care. If that question sounds less than kosher to you, that’s because it’s not OK; such questions are not allowed under patient confidentiality rules.
Still, the Idaho Board of Pharmacy found that the pharmacist was not guilty of any wrongdoing. A letter from the board’s Executive Director Mark Johnston said that the group “had concluded its investigation into the incident and found no violations of state laws the board is tasked with enforcing.” Needless to say, the board has established a dangerous precedent.
In Nebraska, state legislators already have on the books an extremely dangerous “fetal pain” law, which bans abortions after 20 weeks based on shoddy “scientific” findings that fetuses can feel pain at that stage of development. One of the law’s aims was to run out of the state Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who is one of the few abortion providers in the country who will provide much-needed late-term abortions for women who need them. (Late-term abortion providers and their families are routinely targeted, harassed and even killed by anti-choice extremists. One infamous case is that of Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered in 2009 by an anti-choice activist.)
The passage of the Nebraska “fetal pain” law emboldened legislators in Iowa, where Carhart has started to practice, to put a copycat law on the books. And now other states, including Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma and Indiana, are following suit, intending to keep Carhart and other abortion providers from providing a necessary service to women.
In Ohio, a terrifying “heartbeat bill” is being proposed that would define “life” as starting at the first sign of a heartbeat. Since this occurs extremely early in a pregnancy, the bill is Republican legislators’ sneaky way of banning virtually all abortions and rolling back Roe v. Wade to the point of near-nonexistence. As Robin Mary writes at
“By establishing heartbeat as the criteria for banning abortion, the bill effectively rejects abortion from any point after roughly four weeks post conception, a time in which fetal heartbeat can be seen via high quality ultrasound machine. For most women, that would provide a window of two weeks or less in order to learn she was pregnant, make her decision about the pregnancy, arrange for an appointment, gather money for an abortion, obtain the mandatory counseling and sit through the required 24 hour waiting period. For a woman with irregular menstrual cycles, by the time she realizes she is pregnant it likely would already be too late to do anything but continue the pregnancy.”
The bill is expected to be introduced the week of Valentine’s Day, with copy-cat laws sure to follow in other states.
There’s a silver lining in Washington state, which is considering legislation to target misleading Crisis Pregnancy Centers—centers that advertise themselves as full-service reproductive health facilities, but are actually run by anti-choice organizations that steer all women away from abortion as a choice, often citing dubious pseudo-scientific findings.
As Amie Newman reports for RH Reality Check, the law would “require centers to disclose that they do not ‘provide services or referrals for abortion or comprehensive birth control’ or ‘medical care for pregnant women.’” Newman also notes that the legislation would require these centers to immediately test women for pregnancy instead of stalling them, which can make it more difficult for women to have abortions.
The sad thing about this excellent legislation from Washington is that, if it passes, it would make Washington the only state to have such a statute. At the moment, CPCs are running rampant with few regulations, while abortion clinics are utterly bombarded with regulations. There’s no question we’re in an all-out war to protect women’s bodies, health and autonomy.
On the same frigid day in February when Gov. Martinez declared New Mexico’s natural gas shortages to be a state of emergency and sent most public employees home, the state Legislature was in full swing. At a meeting of the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee, a packed house awaited the discussion of HB 30, the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Bernalillo, began his explanation of the bill with the
of Sarah Lovato, a 17-year-old pregnant woman shot and killed by her then-boyfriend, Marino Leyba Jr., who worked for his father’s security company and carried a handgun. Prosecutors later said Leyba had specifically targeted Lovato’s unborn fetus.
The bill, Larrañaga told the committee, was for “little Isaac”—the name Lovato had planned to give the child.
“Mr. Leyba was initially charged with three counts of murder—but the third count was dropped because Isaac Lovato, little Isaac, was not covered under New Mexico law,” Larrañaga explained. “This law will address that specific issue.”
Several of Lovato’s family members spoke in favor of the bill, expressing their hopes that it would prevent other families from having to endure the same painful losses.
“We just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Lovato’s aunt, Diane, told the committee.
But to pro-choice advocates, preventing domestic violence through stiffer penalties for perpetrators wasn’t the bill’s true purpose.
“If we were really to prevent crimes such as the one that happened, we would be looking at regulation and licensing of security guards,” Diane Wood, the state director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told the committee. “I believe that the bill is being proposed to further the agenda of the anti-choice [movement].”
There are other concerns, too.
In a fiscal impact report, the state Public Defender Department states that the bill “raises serious constitutional issues” by defining an “unborn child” as any human fetus. In a nod to this concern, the committee amended the definition to include only fetuses more than 20 weeks old.
“It’s against the law—it’s against the Constitution, frankly—to criminalize an abortion,” committee member Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, noted. “We have to make sure that this language does not conflict with that principle.”
But Dauneen Dolce, the executive director of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, an anti-choice political action group, and Allen Sánchez, the director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, came to express their support—and though both maintained the bill has nothing to do with abortion, Wood disagrees.
Larrañaga has sponsored other anti-choice bills in the past, she notes—a parental notification bill in 2007 and a nearly identical Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2005—four years before the Lovato case.
Anti-choice advocates, Wood says, “have seized upon this tragic crime, have lined up the family to come relive it again—when we know that passing criminal bills doesn’t keep people from committing criminal acts.”
In the end, though, the committee approved the amended bill. Its next stop is the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee.