Katy Burns: A war on women?
I never liked the charged phrase “a war on women” to illustrate (and to decry) the ongoing effort by conservatives, almost all Republicans, to restrict the reproductive freedom of the 50 percent of the population that’s female.
But in the light of recent developments, I’m reconsidering. What was happening when the “war on women” was coined is nothing compared with what’s going on now in a large number of states – and in Congress, at least in the GOP-controlled House. The right of women to control their own health-care decisions is under assault as it hasn’t been in decades.
We may indeed have a war on women under way. At least on women’s reproductive freedom. And, oddly, waging that war are people who seem to think they are uniquely entitled to wield the word “freedom” as their own personal cudgel.
In state after state where Republicans completely control the levers of power – the governorship and majorities or even super-majorities in the legislature – they are passing draconian laws to limit abortion and even to effectively eliminate it altogether, despite the fact that abortion is now and has been for 40 years a completely legal medical procedure in these United States.
The attacks on legal abortion are multi-pronged. One is to make obtaining an abortion as onerous for patients as possible. Lawmakers impose waiting periods, sometimes up to 72 hours, necessitating multiple visits to medical providers who provide abortion. In Kansas, even a woman in a life-threatening emergency – hemorrhaging, toxemia, a ruptured ectopic pregnancy – has to wait for 24 hours before an abortion is allowed.
Odious conditions are imposed in many states. Forced “cautions” with medically false information on the dire effects of abortion are mandated. Women are forced to undergo invasive and medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound examinations.
The latest dodge is passing openly unconstitutional time restrictions. A favorite of both various state legislatures and the GOP House in Washington is banning all abortions after 20 weeks (and in several instances after 12 or even six weeks) of pregnancy. Such narrow limits violate current law, but it will take time and precious resources of pro-choice organizations to fight them state by state. And there is always a chance, proponents of the limits believe, that they can get the favorable attention of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.
While they’re throwing any and all obstacles they can dream up at women patients, legislators are also going after the abortion providers themselves, trying to regulate them out of existence with suddenly popular TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) laws, imposing nearly impossible-to-meet, unnecessary
and hyper-expensive hospital standards on the operators of even first trimester clinic operations. These are sold as “health” measures by people who can barely make such claims with straight faces.
Among those items being scrutinized and “regulated” in many places are the size of parking lots, the width of doorways and the lengths of corridors. Long-established women’s health clinics, battered by costs of the new standards, are closing their doors in states as varied as Virginia, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.
By legislating the effective end of abortion, of course, conservative lawmakers are affecting a lot more than simply abortion. In state after state, the clinics that are being de-funded (which is the case with many Planned Parenthood operations, even those that don’t offer abortion) have over the years been the providers of basic health care, including but not limited to birth control, for many thousands of low- and moderate-income women who are now left in the lurch.
In fact, in this unholy new world of right-wing medical meddling and mandating, the legitimacy of birth control itself is under attack in a growing number of statehouses as legislatures approve measures to allow employers – any employers, not just religious institutions – to drop even ordinary contraceptive coverage from their employees’ health insurance policies. State funding for family planning is rapidly drying up.
Texas is a brilliant example of the pincer movements the states are making on not just abortion but women’s reproductive care generally. The first step involved stripping Planned Parenthood of its contracts, and the most recent moves involve multiple restrictions on abortion. The effect on just one poor county on the Mexican border can be measured statistically.
In 2010, before it lost its public contracts, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Hidalgo County – which does not provide abortion – offered subsidized contraceptive care to 23,000 men and women, according to the New York Times. Today it can afford to offer services to only 12,000. No other organization has taken up the slack. There will, inevitably, be pregnancies that once might have been prevented. And – with Texas’s stringent new abortion limits – there will be increasing numbers of women resorting to illegal abortifacients, including black market pills of unknown origin available in the area’s dusty flea markets. And more desperate visits to emergency rooms.
After all, all these harsh measures don’t stop abortion. They just drive it into an unsafe underground with foreseeable consequences.
And this is American health care in the 21st century?
Not only are the new restrictions ugly attacks on women’s reproductive rights and health, they are being passed in mean-spirited legislative sessions where testimony and dissent are sharply limited. At times the worst of the laws are almost sneaked onto the floor. In Ohio, the new restrictions were tacked onto a two-year budget bill. In North Carolina, an omnibus of stringent abortion regulations was packed into an “anti-Shariah law” bill.
Some of the most restrictive states are what you might call the usual suspects – Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Texas, North Dakota and South Dakota. But others are more surprising, states we think of as moderate, such as North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, even Michigan and Wisconsin.
What they all have in common is a one-party state house, with GOP control of both the legislature and the governor’s office. And that GOP is driven to placate its hard-right base.
New England and the Northeast generally have been spared the worst of the Rise of the Righteous Right. But we in the Granite State came uncomfortably close during the 2011-12 legislative session, when a host of similar measures was introduced. For the most part, they didn’t pass. And if they had, Gov. John Lynch was ready to veto them.
It goes to show that sometimes it’s a pretty good thing that, unlike most states, we insist that all our elected officials run for re-election every two years.
And all of you who think we won’t go backward here if we let our guard down? A lot of folks in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan probably thought the same thing.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)