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The Stealth War on Abortion

While more Americans support upholding 'Roe v. Wade' than ever, the Tea Party and the Christian right have teamed up to pass hundreds of restrictions eviscerating abortion rights in GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
January 15, 2014 9:00 AM ET

On the morning of December 11th, Gretchen Whitmer, the charismatic 42-year-old minority leader of the Michigan Senate, stood before her colleagues in the Statehouse in Lansing, and told them something she'd told almost no one before. "Over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape," she said. "And thank God it didn't result in a pregnancy, because I can't imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker."

Check out the 10 dumbest things said about abortion and women's rights

No one in the gallery said a word. Instead, with just hours to go before it broke for Christmas recess, Michigan's overwhelmingly male, Republican-dominated Legislature, having held no hearings nor even a substantive debate, voted to pass one of the most punishing pieces of anti-abortion legislation anywhere in the country: the Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act, which would ban abortion coverage, even in cases of rape or incest, from virtually every health-insurance policy issued in the state. Women and their employers wanting this coverage will instead have to purchase a separate rider – often described as "rape insurance." Whitmer, a Democrat known as a fierce advocate for women's issues, described the new law as "by far one of the most misogynistic proposals I've seen in the Michigan Legislature."

And it's not just Michigan. Eight other states now have laws preventing abortion coverage under comprehensive private insurance plans – only one of them, Utah, makes an exception for rape. And 24 states, including such traditionally blue states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, ban some forms of abortion coverage from policies purchased through the new health exchanges. While cutting insurance coverage of abortion in disparate states might seem to be a separate issue from the larger assault on reproductive rights, it is in fact part of a highly coordinated and so far chillingly successful nationwide campaign, often funded by the same people who fund the Tea Party, to make it harder and harder for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and also to limit their access to many forms of contraception.

See why Wendy Davis' filibuster matters

All this legislative activity comes at a time when overall support for abortion rights in the United States has never been higher – in 2013, seven in 10 Americans said they supported upholding Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But polls also show that more than half the country is open to placing some restrictions on abortion: Instead of trying to overturn Roe, which both sides see as politically unviable, they have been working instead to chip away at reproductive rights in a way that will render Roe's protections virtually irrelevant.

Since 2010, when the Tea Party-fueled GOP seized control of 11 state legislatures – bringing the total number of Republican-controlled states to 26 – conservative lawmakers in 30 states have passed 205 anti-abortion restrictions, more than in the previous decade. "What you're seeing is an underhanded strategy to essentially do by the back door what they can't do through the front," says Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is currently litigating against some of the new anti-choice laws. "The politicians and organizations advancing these policies know they can't come right out and say they're trying to effectively outlaw abortion, so instead, they come up with laws that are unnecessary, technical and hard to follow, which too often force clinics to close. Things have reached a very dangerous place."

Last June, the right's stealth attack on abortion rights became front-page news, when, in an attempt to block a vote on a sweeping omnibus bill that included 20 pages of anti-abortion legislation, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis embarked on an 11-hour-plus filibuster in the Texas Statehouse. Wearing rouge-red Mizuno running shoes and an elegant string of pearls, the blond, blue-eyed Davis, a onetime single mother and a graduate of Harvard Law School, became an overnight symbol of what, in many states, is a growing popular resistance to the conservative anti-choice agenda. But Davis' filibuster failed to prevent the Texas Legislature from holding a special session in July to pass the bill, despite widespread public opposition.

Read our 1977 feature on the abortion backlash

This was the latest failed battle to protect reproductive rights in a state that in the past few years has passed some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country. Thanks to the cumulative impact of Texas law, a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy must receive pre-abortion counseling to advise her of the supposed physical and emotional health risks, undergo an ultrasound and view an image of her fetus as well as hear it described by her doctor, and then, in most cases, wait another 24 hours before having the procedure. This assumes she can even find a clinic to go to. Women's-health centers have been shutting their doors all over the Lone Star State since 2011, when, in a specific attempt to defund Planned Parenthood – which operated only a portion of the state's women's-health clinics – the Texas Legislature cut the funding to family-planning clinics by two-thirds, eliminating access to low-price contraception and other health services like breast exams and cancer screenings for more than 155,000 women. With the passage of the new restrictions last summer, a third of Texas' remaining clinics announced they'd have to close or offer fewer services. If additional measures go into effect this September, it could mean potentially leaving just six clinics offering abortions in a state of 26 million people, all of them in urban areas, and none in the entire western half of the state.

Much of the public outrage in recent years has revolved around extreme measures, like proposed "personhood amendments" that would have outlawed abortion outright, and banned many common forms of birth control, stem-cell research and in-vitro fertilization. But the anti-abortion movement's real success has been in passing seemingly innocuous regulations known as TRAP laws ("Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers"), which are designed to punish abortion providers by burying them in mountains of red tape, and, ultimately, driving them out of business.

Twenty-six states, including Texas, have laws on their books requiring that abortion clinics become mini surgical centers, a costly proposition that would require clinics to widen hallways, expand parking lots, modify janitorial closets or install surgical sinks and pipelines for general anesthesia – regulations most providers say are unnecessary. Four states currently (and four more may soon) require that the doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at local hospitals, which applies even in places where the nearest hospitals oppose abortion or are simply too far away to meet the state's distance requirement. Sixteen states restrict medication-induced abortion; in 39 states, only licensed physicians – not their physician's assistants or nurse practitioners – are permitted to hand out the drug. Fourteen states ban its use via telemedicine, which is often the only way a woman in a rural part of the country can consult with her doctor.

"It's a brilliant strategy to package these laws as just making sure abortion is 'safe,' [and] in many states, they've been able to sell it that way," says Eric Ferrero, VP of communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But abortion is already safe. The mortality rate for abortions is less than .67 per 100,000 procedures. By comparison, the mortality rate for colonoscopies, also commonly performed in outpatient clinics but not subject to similar restrictions, is about 20 out of 100,000.

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