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It’s Time to Do More Than Just Play Defense on Abortion Rights

Handmaids of Handmaid's Tale

Welcome to The Week in Reproductive Justice, a weekly recap of all news related to the hot-button issue of what lawmakers are allowing women to do with their bodies!

The same week black women lawmakers launched the landmark Black Maternal Health Caucus, this past week was also a particularly busy one for anti-choice politicians. From Ted Cruz initiating a pathetic Senate investigation about Twitter supposedly persecuting an anti-abortion propaganda film, to Texas legislators introducing a bill to subject women who have abortions to the death penalty, we encountered some exhaustive efforts to endanger women’s health.

Cruel legislation and cultural movements by anti-choice activists and lawmakers have forced reproductive justice advocates to take on a defensive role for decades, but this week’s formal announcement of the Black Maternal Health Caucus should remind us of our power to fight for more, to go on the offensive for the rights and health care women and marginalized people deserve.

Black women are 243 percent more likely than white women to die of pregnancy and birth-related causes. Addressing this harsh reality, and many others like it, is going to take more than standing up to anti-abortion bills in state legislatures; it’s going to take proactive legislation and advocacy to not just preserve existing rights, but expand these rights and demand real, tangible reproductive justice for all.

Senate Republicans and North Dakota state legislators take aim at later abortions

This week, Senate Republicans, led by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, introduced legislation that would ban abortions at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Hearings for the bill were widely protested by abortion rights activists, who shared their own stories about having abortions and extreme health circumstances that necessitated later abortions.

This wasn’t the first time Republicans in Congress have tried to pass a 20-week ban, and even as Republican Senators ultimately backed down, this likely won’t be their last attempt. The truth is, despite how fundamental safe abortion access is to the health and autonomy of women and pregnant people, to Republican politicians who have become increasingly out of touch with the majority of Americans, it’s become little more than a salient subject for political theater to rile their base.

Let’s take a moment to think about this: Anti-choice Republicans have had control of Congress for years, until Democrats recently seized the House. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to successfully pass a 20-week ban, and this time around, at the very least, the Senate could have, but they back down and opt to pin blame on “baby-killing” Democrats, because they know that abortion bans are plainly unpopular with the American people.

Their attempts to ban abortion are little more than an appeal to a small, select minority of anti-abortion Americans who are the core of their base, all while completely disregarding the women and abortion providers who are directly threatened by their legislation.

Later abortions are exceedingly rare, with more than 90 percent of all abortions taking place in the first trimester. Safe access to later abortion often saves the lives of pregnant women—or spares them the trauma and abject cruelty of being forced to carry to term a fetus with extreme, unlivable condition—but proposed later abortion bans allow anti-choice politicians to equate all abortions to their dangerous, misguided definition of “infanticide.”

That’s why we’ve seen such emphatic Republican messaging around this issue in recent months: The topic of later abortion and purported “infanticide” allows Republican politicians to sweepingly stigmatize abortion, rile up their base, and certainly, introduce horrific legislation—all to the detriment of women and abortion providers. And while later abortions are rare, by no means should access to later abortion be stigmatized or restricted by disproportionately male politicians who know nothing about women’s individual circumstances and needs.

In either case, while Republicans in the Senate ultimately backed down on this proposed later abortion ban, North Dakota’s state legislature certainly didn’t. This week, anti-abortion lawmakers in the state passed a bill that would ban the dilation and evacuation abortion procedure, which is the safest form of abortion in the second trimester. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signed the bill into law on Wednesday.

Abortion is already highly inaccessible in North Dakota, which is one of seven states to only have one abortion provider. North Dakota now joins Mississippi and West Virginia, which also ban the procedure, while similar versions of the law enacted in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas have been put on hold in legal challenges.

Ohio becomes the latest state to ban abortion

Just weeks after Georgia’s state legislatures passed a so-called “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban that effectively serves as a ban on all abortions, Ohio’s general assembly this week passed similar legislation, signed by Ohio’s staunchly anti-abortion Governor on Thursday.

Fetal heartbeat bans, which ban abortions at about six weeks, before most women know they’re pregnant, have become so terrifyingly common in 2019 that it’s alarming how normalized news like this has become, but no matter how frequently bills like this pop up and even succeed in state legislatures, we can never allow this to be normal. The fetal heartbeat ban is as good as a death sentence for women and pregnant people; it is quite literally the criminalization of women’s bodily autonomy, a policy of state-mandated, forced birth that necessitates that all sexual intercourse must be for the purpose of birthing children.

It simply can’t be stated enough: Abortion bans are about removing women from public life, and stripping the full promise of our human rights. These laws certainly aren’t about stopping abortions, which will continue, but will be more likely to take place under unsafe, potentially life-threatening conditions. There are programs and strategies that have proven effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies, such as removing barriers to access effective contraception, and guaranteeing comprehensive, accurate sexual health education. But no contraception is 100 percent, and abortion—safe or unsafe—has existed and will exist as long as unwanted pregnancy.

Ohio’s passage of the fetal heartbeat ban may be one in a string of recent, extremist legislation, but it’s critical that we treat it as a reminder to never, ever allow any of this to be normal.

Texas Republicans are so “pro-life” that they’ll kill you over it

Abortion rights activists have been saying for years that the so-called “pro-life” movement is actually anything but, and much like soaring maternal mortality rates caused by anti-abortion restrictions, when it comes to their hypocrisy, “pro-life” politicians speak for themselves: This week, anti-abortion lawmakers in Texas introduced legislation that would criminalize abortion and charge any woman who has an abortion with capital murder. As activists and media outlets have swiftly pointed out, in Texas, capital murder is punishable by the death penalty.

According to lawmakers who support the bill, it’s all about teaching women a little thing called “personal responsibility.” In the words of state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, the bill will force Texas women to be “more personally responsible,” because, per Tinderholt, who has obviously tried to have an abortion in the state of Texas before, “right now, [having an abortion in Texas is] real easy.”

He told the Texas Observer in 2017, “Right now, they don’t make it important to be personally responsible because they know that they have a backup of ‘oh, I can just go get an abortion.’ Now, we both know that consenting adults don’t always think smartly sometimes, but consenting adults need to also consider the repercussions of the sexual relationship that they’re gonna have, which is a child.”

In other words, as Tinderholt sees it, people who are supposedly too irresponsible to engage safe sex (notably, in a state that is notorious for poor sex education standards and constant efforts to defund family planning programs) are somehow responsible enough to be parents, which … might just make sense in whatever alternate universe it is that abortion is “real easy” to access in Texas.

California paves the way forward on reproductive rights

At the end of last week, California’s SB 24, to create medication abortion access on public university campuses, successfully moved out of the state Senate Health Committee. A previous version of the bill passed out of the state legislature last year, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown claimed the bill was somehow unnecessary in a state where 43 percent of counties lack abortion providers, where hundreds of California college students seek abortion care each month and are forced to travel off-campus, miss class and work, and often shoulder steep financial costs.

But with Brown out of the picture, a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, and a supportive Gov. Gavin Newsom, there’s reason for optimism that SB 24 could become a reality, improving access to abortion care for college students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of their proximity to an abortion clinic.

And this week, the Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act, to address disparate rates of maternal death among black women, passed out of the state Senate Health Committee, too.

SB 464 offers specific measures to address this disparity, such as establishing a training program to help medical professionals identify and correct unconscious or conscious biases and misinformation leading to higher black maternal death rates. This program would also address “personal, interpersonal, institutional, structural and cultural barriers to health care access,” according to a press release by state Sen. Holly Mitchell, the bill’s author.

The press release also notes that, despite how California’s maternal mortality rate has impressively decreased by 55 percent since 2006, for women of color and specifically black women, this rate remains three to four times higher than for white women. Black women comprise just 5 percent of those who give birth in California, but they comprise a staggering 21 percent of pregnancy-related deaths.

Like the establishment of the Congressional Black Maternal Health Caucus, California’s SB 464 is a reminder that we can and absolutely must do better.

Tune in next week to see what lawmakers will try next in their never-ending mission to derail reproductive justice!

(image: Daniel X O’Neil on Flickr)

Kylie Cheung writes about feminism and politics, with a focus on reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kylietcheung, or learn more about her writing at www.kyliecheung.tumblr.com.

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