Health

Rights group: Lawmakers hide abortion provisions in legislation

California is first, North Dakota last in NARAL's annual report on the status of US reproductive rights

Activists backing abortion rights face off against opposing demonstrators as both march in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Jan. 25, 2013.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

NARAL Pro-Choice America released its annual report (PDF) assessing the status of women’s reproductive rights in the United States, saying that elected officials are increasingly making attempts to pass abortion-restrictive policies at the state level by concealing them in broader pieces of legislation because the public doesn’t support them.

“Politicians have learned that their positions are unpopular so they obfuscate their views and move them into bills that are unrelated,” Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL, told reporters during a conference call.

She cited North Carolina’s bill on motorcycle safety, which was signed into law in October 2013. The bill also contained provisions requiring abortion clinics to meet standards similar to hospitals and surgical centers, which would effectively force many of the state’s clinics to close.

North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had promised during his gubernatorial campaign that he would not support any new restrictions on abortions.

“Even in places where those restrictions end up becoming law, those moves come at a high price,” Crane said, noting that the governor’s approval rating plummeted after North Carolinians became aware of the bill’s provisions on abortion.

Ohio also passed sweeping budget measures in 2013 that included three restrictions on women’s abortion rights, including a requirement that women receive information about the fetal heartbeat before undergoing the procedure. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the three amendments on the basis of the Ohio constitution’s “single subject” rule.

“Opponents of legal abortion have become highly skilled at identifying levers of power at the state level and placing their people there through appointments,” Crane said, adding that this has the effect of legislating more anti-abortion policies.

But Carol Tobias, president of anti-abortion rights group National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), said lawmakers opposing abortion rights in states such as North Carolina and Ohio have never tried to fleece the public. “Part of the legislative process is to put legislation in where you can," she told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. "There’s nothing hidden about this. Everyone knew what they were doing; it was getting all sorts of publicity. Quite frankly, that’s common legislative process in a lot of places."

A landmark ruling

The Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion in the U.S., is still divisive as ever. But four decades after the ruling, more than half of Americans support the court’s decision, according to recent Gallup polls.

A 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 70 percent of Americans opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade; 54 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal all or most of the time; and 44 percent said abortion should be illegal under any circumstances.

But the NRLC's Tobias said NARAL's contention that the majority of the country supports abortion rights is "way out of step with mainstream America."

"Even people who think abortion should be legal would support some limits and restrictions on the process," she said.

Still, NARAL said Tuesday that what it called Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, were flourishing in anti-abortion states such as Texas. The centers masquerade as comprehensive pregnancy health centers, but “persuade, harass or misinform” women about their reproductive health options to dissuade them from having abortions, NARAL said.

The state of Texas called a special legislative session over the summer to enact a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and to require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, which forced many to close down. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Texas, famously attempted to block the moves with a 13-hour filibuster, which was ultimately unsuccessful but rocketed her into the media spotlight.

“While some CPCs are upfront about their anti-choice agenda and may even provide some support and information to women facing unintended pregnancies, many do not,” the NARAL report said.

It lauded the 10 states that enacted legislation expanding women’s reproductive health access, in particular California, which passed a law allowing nurse practitioners, physician assistants and midwives to perform certain types of early-term abortions.

California — which was ranked by NARAL as the state with the best reproductive rights — also expanded its law protecting abortion clinics from harassment.

Other states are also grappling with the issue of guaranteeing the safety of facilities. The Supreme Court will hear a challenge on Wednesday to a Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics.

At the other end of the spectrum from California, North Dakota ranked last in reproductive rights after it enacted bans on abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which can take place as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

The report said that the number of pieces of legislation against abortion rights have risen every year since NARAL began tracking them in 1995, from 18 that year to 807 cumulative measures in 2013.

Legislation passed this year included laws in Kansas and Oklahoma that restrict state funds from going to Planned Parenthood or any other health center that provides abortions. Such moves can make it difficult for those centers to provide other health services, including prenatal care or cancer screenings.

Six states passed laws mandating that women have an ultrasound scan before having an abortion, and three states passed laws banning insurance policies offered in their new health insurance marketplaces from offering abortion coverage.

"To me, the report is very encouraging," said NRLC's Tobias, "because it shows that protective legislation for unborn babies and their mothers is successful."

But NARAL also praised the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which mandates that insurance companies must include maternity care in all health insurance plans.

NARAL President Ilyse Hogue told reporters that expanded abortion and reproductive rights help boost women’s economic position and are more closely connected to a country’s economic health than some lawmakers want to believe.

“I have not talked to a single woman in this country who doesn’t think that these things are inextricably linked,” she said.

The Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion in the U.S., is still divisive as ever, but 40 years after the ruling, more than half of Americans support the court’s decision,according to recent Gallup polls.

A 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 70 percent of Americans opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade; 54 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal all or most of the time, while 44 percent said abortion should be illegal.

Still, NARAL Pro-Choice noted on Tuesday that what it called Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, were flourishing in anti-abortion states like Texas, which masquerade as comprehensive pregnancy health centers but “persuade, harass or misinform” women about their reproductive health options to dissuade them from having abortions.

The state of Texas called a special legislative session over the summer toenact a ban on abortions after 20-weeks of pregnancy and creating stricter surgical requirement on clinics that forced many to close down, before which Sen. Wendy Davis (D-TX) famously attempted to block with a 13-hour filibuster.

“While some CPCs are upfront about their anti-choice agenda and may even provide some support and information to women facing unintended pregnancies, many do not,” the report said.

It lauded the 10 states that enacted legislation expanding women’s reproductive health access, in particular California, which passed a law allowing nurse practitioners, physician assistants and midwives perform certain types of early-term abortions.

California, which received a No. 1 ranking in the report’s ratings of how individual states fared with respect to women’s reproductive rights, also expanded the state’s law protecting abortion clinics from harassment. (Notably, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge on Wednesday to the state of Massachusetts’ law requiring a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics.)

“California’s new measure [expanding abortion access] should be a model for the rest of the country; making abortion more accessible means making it safer,” wrote NARAL president Ilyse Hogue in the report. “More important, it should be a model for the entire pro-choice movement.”

At the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota ranked last after it enacted bans on abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which can take place as early as six weeks into a pregnancy,

The report said that the number of anti-choice pieces of legislation have risen every year since it began tracking them in 1995, from 18 that year all the way up to 807 cumulative measures in 2013.

Among the legislation passed this year included laws in Kansas and Oklahoma that restrict state funds from going to Planned Parenthood or any other health center that provides abortions, which can make it difficult for those centers to provide other health services like prenatal care or cancer screenings.

Six states passed laws mandating that women have an ultrasound before having an abortion, and three states passed laws banning insurance policies offered in their new health insurance marketplaces from offering abortion coverage.

But NARAL also praised the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which mandates that insurance companies must include maternity care in all health insurance plans.

Hogue told reporters that expanded abortion and reproductive rights help boost women’s economic position and are more closely connected to a country’s economic health than some lawmakers want to believe.

 “I have not talked to a single woman in this country who doesn’t think that these things are inextricably linked,” she said.

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