Medical assistant Nyla Munoz closes a walk-in patient's file at the Whole Women's Health Clinic in McAllen, Texas, March 4, 2014. The clinic closed soon after, in large part due to new onerous regulations passed by the state legislature.
Jennifer Whitney/The New York Times/Redux

An opportunity for Congress to stand up for women

Someone has to put a stop to this.

A week after the Supreme Court ruled that it’s okay for employers to single out essential women’s health care for exclusion from insurance coverage, new reports by the Guttmacher Institute and the Center for Reproductive Rights provided a disheartening reminder of the extent to which politicians in state legislatures across the U.S. have already been singling out women’s health care for differential treatment under the law.

“Women do not need any more laws that pretend to protect their health and safety while actually putting both in great jeopardy. They need the real thing.”
Nancy Northup, Center for Reproductive Rights
Nearly 60% of American women, according to Guttmacher, live under state legislative regimes that target reproductive health care providers who offer abortion services with burdensome requirements designed to regulate them out of practice.

This back-door strategy is working.

North Dakota, Mississippi, and three other states each have but a single remaining provider offering abortion care to women who often must travel hundreds of miles to obtain these critical services.

A year ago, Texas passed another sweeping set of restrictions to devastating effect. At least one third of the states’ clinics have been forced to stop providing abortions. There is no clinic left in the entire Rio Grande Valley, an impoverished area with over 1.3 million residents. If the final requirement is allowed to go into effect in September, the number of clinics will plummet to less than 10 to serve a sprawling state of over 260,000 square miles and 13 million women.

Forty-one years after the Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to safely and legally end a pregnancy if that is what she has decided is right for her, her ability to do so increasingly depends on her zip code.

That’s why advocates for reproductive rights and health are on Capitol Hill today, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the Women’s Health Protection Act.

Introduced last November by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Tammy Baldwin, and Representatives Judy Chu, Lois Frankel and Marcia Fudge, this historic legislation would enforce and protect a woman’s right and access to safe, legal abortion care no matter where she happens to live.

It would prohibit states from singling out reproductive health care providers with oppressive requirements that grossly exceed what is necessary to ensure high standards of care—and that apply to no similarly low-risk medical procedures. It would maintain those regulations that actually ensure patient safety in the provision of reproductive health care—while putting a stop to dangerous regulations that are passed under the pretext of protecting women’s well-being, but that actually cut off access to abortion care and endanger women’s health and lives.

Make no mistake about it: The regulations that have been driving good, caring, reputable reproductive health care providers across the country out of practice and leaving too many women with unsafe options that pose a very real threat to their lives are based on pure pretext.

They are advanced not by doctors, but by politicians. Some have provoked public opposition by authorities no less than the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Many are based on model legislation written by explicitly anti-abortion activist organizations. And the problem they purport to solve simply does not exist.

“Politicians nationwide have passed more laws restricting access to reproductive health care in the past three years than in the entire decade before.”
Nancy Northup, Center for Reproductive Rights
The legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee recently conceded herself that legal abortion is among the safest medical procedures, and she criticized her fellow anti-abortion activists for using health and safety as a ruse to try to legislate the procedure away.

Nevertheless, the avalanche of legislative assaults on women’s health care continues. Politicians nationwide have passed more laws restricting access to reproductive health care in the past three years than in the entire decade before.

And the consequences for women are increasingly dire. Even before Texas passed its battery of anti-abortion laws, a 2012 study in Texas found that 7% of women reported attempts to self-abort before seeking medical care. Now, women are crossing the border into Mexico to buy miscarriage-inducing drugs at flea markets or off the shelves at pharmacies—and then seeking needed emergency care back in Texas. There will be more such stories—and worse.

One in three women in the U.S. will decide at some point in her life that ending a pregnancy is the right decision for her. And when she does, she needs care—good, safe, reliable care, from a health care professional she can trust, in or near the community she calls home.

In the early 1990s, anti-abortion activists tried to prevent women from getting that care through physical attacks—blockades, harassment, arson, bombings, and murder. I locked arms with members of my church to keep a clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, open in the face of this violence and intimidation; the situation got so bad back then that Congress could no longer turn a blind eye—and this led to the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

Today the assault is waged by politicians through a barrage of pretextual laws and regulations designed to accomplish by the pen what could not be accomplished by brute force. Now, as then, Congress cannot ignore what is happening. This is a national crisis, and it demands a national response.

Women do not need any more laws that pretend to protect their health and safety while actually putting both in great jeopardy. They need the real thing.

The Women’s Health Protection Act is a crucial step toward defending access to safe, legal, essential health care and the constitutional rights of every woman in the U.S. If Congress is truly interested in acting for women, it should pass this important legislation without delay.

Nancy Northup is the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Abortion

An opportunity for Congress to stand up for women