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Spate of abortion-restriction laws draw attention of Congress

Abortion-rights advocates aim to steer away from politics and refocus debate on the medical needs of women

Members of the U.S. House and Senate, along with medical professionals and advocates on both sides of the abortion debate, listened to arguments at a Senate hearing Tuesday on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would prohibit laws restricting women’s access to abortion services. The bill aims to counter recent moves by anti-abortion advocates to chip away at a woman’s constitutional right to choose, abortion-rights activists say.

“The purpose of the hearing was to show the Senate vividly, dramatically, graphically what the practical impacts are of these illegal restrictions that so drastically burden a woman’s right to reproductive health care,” Sen. Blumenthal, D-Conn., sponsor of the bill, said in a release emailed to Al Jazeera.

Twenty-six states now have laws or policies that regulate abortion providers and, rights advocates say, go beyond what is necessary to ensure a patient’s safety — including required counseling; admitting privileges; forced ultrasounds, in which a woman is required to look at the image of her fetus; and waiting periods for abortion-seekers, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights research organization.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who attended the Tuesday hearing, said the dangers to women's lives are real.

"The right to make for ourselves the important decisions of our lives is under assault throughout vast swaths of the nation," she said.

To bypass the laws, women in Texas, for example, have been crossing the border into Mexico to buy a medication that is typically used to treat ulcers but which some women have tried to use to abort pregnancies because they can induce — dangerous — bleeding and cause other complications.

Last July, Texas passed a law mandating that physicians who perform abortions have admitting privileges to hospitals within 30 miles of their clinics, a rule that rights advocates have said is a tactic purported to protect women but which actually reduces access to safe abortions. Even before the law was passed, Northup said, 7 percent of women tried to self-abort before seeking care, implying that the law only made a difficult situation more challenging.

That number has increased as the restrictions remain in place, with some women having to travel 300 miles round-trip to reach the closest clinic. Low-income women, who cannot afford the expensive trip, are most severely impacted. Since the measure passed, one-third of the clinics providing reproductive care to 13 million women in Texas, have shut down.

Northup said that advocates of abortion rights have changed tactics and are “trying to accomplish through the pen what could not be accomplished by brute force,” referring to protests hindering access to clinics and the murder of abortion providers in the 1990s.

In Mississippi, where an admitting privileges law was passed in 2012, only one clinic remains open, as a judge mulls whether to uphold a court’s ruling that would force the clinic to close.

Dr. Willie Parker, a physician who performs abortions at the clinic and said his applications to practice at local hospitals were refused or ignored by administrators, testified in favor of the bill. Care “should be determined by medical evidence, not by her zip code,” he said.

By centering the premise of the bill around eliminating restrictive measures that would not be required for “comparable medical procedures,” abortion-rights advocates hope to steer the debate away from what they say are political motivations and focus on women’s health. Laws that don’t provide a medical benefit to the patient should not interfere with the procedure, according to supporters of the bill.

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, a group against abortion, said she rejected the argument that abortion is “just another medical procedure.”

“The bill is really about just one thing: It seeks to strip away from elected lawmakers the ability to provide even the most minimal protections for unborn children, at any stage of their pre-natal development,” she said.

Sen. Blumenthal called the interventions "invasive" and said they were the result of politicians — not doctors or medical experts — who "interfere with the rights of women to seek medical care that they need and deserve.”

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