Meet Stacey Abrams.
As Georgia’s House minority leader, Abrams is one of the few things standing between the women of Georgia and some of the strangest and most awful antiabortion laws we’ve ever seen. Happily, she’s also “the smartest person in the Georgia legislature,” according Leola Reis, vice president for external affairs at Planned Parenthood Southeast in Atlanta. Since she’s been in office, she’s been quick and vocal in explaining how a string of proposed abortion restrictions would affect women.
Abrams has her hands full. Especially today, which is “crossover day,” the last day a bill can move from either the Georgia House or Senate into the other chamber. From the way Georgia political veterans tell it, anything can happen. I believe them.
After all, the state has already brought us a bill that would allow women who miscarry to be prosecuted. Under that gem, sponsored by Rev. Bobby Franklin, women who have miscarriages and are unable to prove there was no “human involvement” could face felony charges and life in prison.
The only comfort I have in thinking about this ridiculous provision is that, were it to ever become law, I’m pretty sure the woman I know who has experienced nine miscarriages—each more devastating than the one before it—would personally track down Franklin and shred him.
The good news is that Franklin’s proposal, which is blatantly unconstitutional, would outlaw all abortions as well as IVF, and has been proposed to no effect in previous years, has virtually no chance of passing.
The bad news is that while many of us have been spending precious time and energy pondering it, abortion opponents in Georgia have been cooking up other bizarre bills, some of which now have far better chances of succeeding than Franklin’s.
Enter Georgia State Senator Barry Loudermilk, the author of what may be the strangest antiabortion bill to come out of Georgia yet, which is really saying something. I’ve been calling his most recent proposal the sue-if-you’re-displeased-with-her-choice bill. (It doesn’t have a better name yet, since, as far as I can tell, it’s the first of its kind to reach a legislative body.)
Loudermilk’s bill, which is being considered today, would allow a woman—or the members of her own family, including an abusive husband—to file a wrongful death lawsuit against a doctor who has performed an abortion. The bill spells out that the damages for the wrongful death of the fetus would be equal to those for an adult person. And it would allow the suits even if the doctors involved followed all laws regarding abortion and if the women involved don’t consent to the suit. [Editor's note: Loudermilk's bill, SB 210, passed through Georgia's senate in the evening of March 16, and now moves to the state's House.]
Loudermilk is the same legislator who recently did a bait-and-switch at a hearing at which legislators were supposed to be considering a fetal pain bill and suddenly found themselves considering a bill that would have shut all abortion clinics in the state by requiring that all abortions be performed in hospitals.
That bill, thankfully, was tabled. But just in time for Crossover Day, he’s come up with the sue-if-you’re-displeased bill, something he managed to get passed out of the Senate’s rules committee only by getting some freshman representative who isn’t on the committee and had no idea what he was talking about to be present so he could have a quorum. The bill then went on to the next step of the legislative process with only a few minutes of discussion.
Here’s hoping that Georgia legislators will soon give it a lengthier review and stop it from going further.
These days, there seems to be an overabundance of guys like Franklin and Loudermilk, who push the legislative envelope to inflict their vision on women. (Here, just for fun, I’m making them so tiny you can barely see their ties.)
But, over the past weeks, I’ve also been watching amazing legislators push back against this wave of extremists. So, since this is my last post on the subject for now, I want to end by recognizing just a few: Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who challenged Arizona Representative Trent Frank’s statement that pro-choice legislators support “killing children;” Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore, who testified about becoming a mother at 18; and California’s Jacky Speier, who spoke about the end of her own pregnancy.
There are, thankfully, many more, including some who will surely fight back in this afternoon’s hearing on the Smith and Pitts bills in the House Ways and Means Committee. So, to them, Stacey Abrams and everyone else taking on the wackos for the rest of us, thanks. And happy crossover day!
If the proposed cuts to birth control get carried out, they could dramatically increase the birth rate.
As the Guttmacher Institute points out, publicly funded family planning services now "prevent almost two million unintended pregnancies each year, which would otherwise result in 860,000 unintended pregnancies and 810,000 abortions. Without these services, the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions among poor women in the United States would nearly double, and the number of unintended pregnancies in the nation as a whole would be nearly two-thirds higher."
But, as anyone who’s watched the Nature Channel can tell you, pregnancy is only the beginning of the story.
So what will happen to the thousands of new people who would result from the absence of publicly-funded family planning services if the House gets its way?
Let’s start at the beginning. First, whether in-utero or out-, those little critters are going to need food. All that growing requires lots of eating. Nurturing them does too, of course.
Unfortunately, the House would cut $747 million from the WIC program, which provides food and other supports to 9.6 million low-income pregnant women, new mothers and infants each month.
Then they’re going to need healthcare. That first year is a perilous one. Our infant mortality rate, which includes deaths until a baby is one year-old, is already high, with forty-five countries, including Slovenia and Cuba, doing better than we do.
Sadly, the House would also cut $50 million from Maternal & Child Health Block Grant, which pays for prenatal care for millions of women and for preventive and primary care for the kids to 31 million children each year.
Even with the numbers pared down by increased infant deaths, there will still be plenty of children left who need someone to take care of them. Remember, of the women affected by the absence of federal family planning funds, most are low-income. And we don’t allow the vast majority of women to stay home and take care of their kids while receiving public assistance anymore. (No one likes a welfare queen.) So we’ll make sure they can get some sort of childcare while their mothers are working, right?
Well, actually, no. We’d be cutting that, too. According to the House plan, the Child Care Development Block Grant would be slashed by $39 million, causing 368,000 children to lose early learning support. There are already huge waiting lists for childcare assistance, with only about one in seven who could benefit from the program receiving help.
At least there’d be Head Start, though. That’s the program that provides low-income kids with good, free early education so they don’t fall through the cracks.
Oh, right. We’d be cutting more than a billion dollars from that cash-strapped program, too.
So, to review: the Republicans’ plan would ensure that many more children are born and then that those same kids won’t get basic supports they need to lead decent lives—food, a safe place to be while their parents work, education and healthcare.
What happens then?
Here it might be useful to look at a state like Mississippi, where, because subsidized family planning services are scant and abortion restrictions plentiful, many women lack the ability to control their fertility. Mississippi is also a state that provides rock-bottom levels of social support to mothers and children, including child-care assistance, Head Start and child health insurance. (I go into the state’s predicament in depth in my recent book.)
The rationale behind the Mississippi’s approach might be summed up by the state’s Department of Human Services official mission statement, which encourages “traditional family values” that promote “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility among all Mississippians.”
Yet, if the state was hoping its cuts will deter people from having sex, it hasn’t succeeded. Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation, as well as high rates of single motherhood and birth overall. But perhaps the most logical outgrowth of its lack of social supports can be seen in other numbers. Mississippi has the highest rate of poverty among women in the nation, the highest rate of poverty among children in the nation, and the second-highest incarceration rate.
Is the entire country about to take up the Mississippi model?
The political push certainly seems to be coming from a similarly prudish place. While the Republicans have spent much of their time defending their budget request with dollars and sense, the real political fire under this effort has come from associating family planning with abortion and, judging from Lila Rose’s recent efforts, from linking Planned Parenthood with sex workers, pimps and immorality in general.
But if Mississippi is any indication—and I think it is—denying women the ability to limit the number of children they have and then withholding support once they have those children won’t stop anyone from having sex. It will, though, almost certainly create and deepen poverty.
The optimist in me thinks that members of Congress are beginning to see the recent attempts to defund birth control for what they are: attacks on the American family.
First, of course, they have to shake free of the bar-fight mentality embodied by Mike Pence. Thankfully, a few seem to already have done it, stepping out of the melee long enough to consider what exactly anti–birth control bills would be savaging.
In the House, which voted to defund Title X federal family planning funding and Planned Parenthood as well as $110 million in teen pregnancy prevention programs, seven Republicans—including Representatives Judy Biggert of Illinois and Mary Bono-Mack of California—already defected from the marauding mass back in February, as did a handful of Democrats who generally oppose abortion rights.
Indeed, Democratic representatives Mike Doyle, Tim Ryan, and Jim Langevin went so far as to write a letter to Speaker Boehner “on behalf of millions of pro-life Americans” in support of Title X, noting that the program “helped women avoid 973,000 unplanned pregnancies in 2008 alone.”
While I don’t agree with these guys on abortion, the Somewhat Thoughtful Three apparently understand that about half of these and all unwanted pregnancies will likely end in abortion. So, for seemingly acting on principle (something I can’t say about most of the rest of these folks piling on contraception), I salute them.
Then Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine spoke up in support of Title X, giving me a fresh stab of hope that people in the Senate might be even a little saner still. And last week, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski went further and publicly supported not just federal family planning funds but Planned Parenthood in particular. Antichoice Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania also said he’d vote against cuts to the organization. All have noted that family planning reduces healthcare costs.
They’re right, of course. Every dollar spent from Title X saves $3.74 in Medicaid costs for pregnant women and babies during their first year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And, with teen pregnancy and child-bearing costing the country at least 9 billion a year nationwide, cutting programs proven to decrease them seems pretty pound-foolish.
But if federal funding for family planning is going to survive, success will ride on explaining that contraception isn’t just the best tool to prevent abortion or save costs, it’s also one of past century’s top ten achievements in public health, according to the government’s own Centers for Disease Control, right up there along with clean water and immunizations.
The CDC notes that the introduction of family planning at the dawn of the twentieth century heralded a new age with fewer children and lower infant mortality. “Smaller families and longer birth intervals have contributed to the better health of infants, children, and women, and have improved the social and economic role of women.”
Family planning has made the American family—the one we’re all supposed to value—what it is today. Birth control is also something many of these legislators’ parents used so the children they did have could be fed, educated and ultimately do well enough to land up in Congress.
Now, I’m hoping, those legislators will bravely step back away from the ludicrous bar fight over birth control and decide not to turn the clock back on American families.
These days, you have to be thankful for the good news on reproductive health, no matter how small or fleeting.
So, in an effort to see the cup as, say, an eighth full, let’s take a gander at some happenings in the world of international women’s health. Pessimists might be inclined to focus on the fact that the House budget bill would slash international funding for family planning by nearly one-third, entirely defund the United Nations Population Fund and make the Global Gag rule permanent.
But I’d like to point out that at least the House didn’t put forward the proposal from Ohio’s Representative Bob Latta (pictured here in a fashionable red-patterned tie) that would have entirely eliminated international family planning funds that provide life-saving care to 27.5 million of the world’s women. (Perhaps Latta will have better luck with his other big effort to improve life on this planet, a proposal to introduce a Ronald Reagan commemorative coin.)
In other good news, the Senate rejected their spending bill that would have cut Obama’s request for international family planning and reproductive health funds by 39 percent. Of course, that means we might have to shut down the government—and that whatever spending bill we end up with might not treat the poor women of the world kindly. But why borrow trouble?
In the spirit of optimism on the international health front, I’m going to turn our attention now to an area that's ripe for improvement. That’s right, this is not a story about failures, really, but instead about our potential to serve the women of the world better, a potential that can be fairly easily realized. I say that last part because the politicians standing in our way this time aren’t antichoice Republicans but prochoice Democrats—and because we don’t need to pass any new laws to do it. (With this Congress, this is happy news indeed!)
Instead, the story of Chisale Mhango, a Malawian ob gyn and public health expert, is about interpreting existing restrictions on abortion—an issue on which, it turns out, the Obama administration isn’t as forward-thinking as you might hope. Let me explain. Mhango recently ran into trouble with US Agency for International Development, which had been paying his salary while he worked for the Malawian Ministry of Health. Mhango was told he couldn’t go to a conference this past August where he was going to present research about the magnitude of unsafe abortion in his country. And though he didn’t speak at the meeting, some months afterward Mhango and USAID agreed that his contract should be terminated early.
At first glance, it can seem that Mhango ran afoul of the Helms amendment. But while some may think that the 1973 law banned the use of US dollars to pay for anything having to do with abortion, in fact it narrowly bans the use of money to “pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning.” While the law also plainly prohibits US money from being used to lobby either for or against abortion, other uses are clearly legal. Thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy, the law even clarifies that it’s okay to use USAID funds to refer women to safe abortion services.
Mhango was going to address the health consequences of unsafe abortion, something that seems well within his purview. Indeed, that’s how representatives of Ipas, the reproductive health organization that was organizing the August conference, saw it. “To us, he was going to speak at a meeting to disseminate the results of a study and to discuss how to address unsafe abortion in Malawi,” says Patty Skuster, Senior Policy Advisor and an attorney at Ipas. “By no definition is that lobbying.”
Elizabeth Maguire, the president of Ipas and herself a former director of the USAID Office of Population and Reproductive Health, even wrote to USAID, complaining that the current “interpretation of the wording has effectively precluded support for abortion even in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life or health of the woman as well as research, technical assistance, publication and awareness raising on the issue.”
Maguire’s letter went on to say that, though Ipas and other organizations have brought the matter of interpreting the Helms amendment up to the Obama administration, she’s been “extremely disappointed with the response.”
The agency responded to Maguire, explaining that, because the August meeting was expected to “include discussion of study findings, as well as possible changes to the legal status of abortion in Malawi,” Mhango’s presence there “raised concerns.”
Of course, it’s easy see why Democrats would live in terror of doing anything that might be seen as controversial. And such scuffles can seem niggling—little political tiffs where the only stakes are political careers—until you see them into context. In Malawi, where abortion is illegal except to save a woman’s life, there are around 100,000 unsafe, illegal abortions every year. As a result, about 30,000 women a year arrive at clinics in need of treatment after incomplete attempts to end their pregnancies or infections that arose from abortions. Hundreds die. In developing countries around the world, nearly 47,000 women die every year because of unsafe abortions.
Mhango has already found another source for his salary and continues his work. But, elsewhere in the developing world, including in Nepal, health care workers are still constrained by a needlessly conservative interpretation of abortion restrictions.
Luckily, USAID could easily fix the situation. All the agency would have to do is clarify its guidelines.
Now that’s good news!
I chuckled when I read about the new British guidelines on what doctors, nurses and counselors there might have to say to women considering abortions.
Here’s the joke: a woman walks into a doctor’s office in England and hears—just some medically accurate information about abortion. Or at least, she will if the latest draft recommendations from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists become official policy.
Women pondering the procedure would be told that having an abortion is generally safer than continuing a pregnancy to term, according to the group’s recent recommendations. Next, they’d hear that women generally don’t suffer any psychological harm as a result of having an abortion.
Both statements are true, of course. Yet, the funny part (funny in sad way) is that such a script would never fly in this country. Instead, here, we have a mish-mash of state laws, several of which mandate that women receive inaccurate information. In two states, women are subjected to false statements about the damaging impact of abortion on their future fertility. Five states require that women get written materials saying that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
But what really gets me is the way we now spell out the psychological health consequences of a woman’s choices. Seven states require women to get information about the possible negative psychological responses to abortion, while omitting any discussion of other possible emotional responses. This, despite the fact that, after thirty-eight years of legal abortion, it’s pretty clear that getting one isn’t any more dangerous to a woman’s emotional health than either raising a child or giving one up for adoption.
This last part is the key, of course. It’s not that women don’t have feelings about having abortions—probably all do, and certainly some of those feelings are negative. But when talking about an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, or perhaps a medically complicated one, no option will be without emotional consequences. Whatever the specifics, carrying a pregnancy to term against one’s wishes will certainly take an emotional toll.
Putting a child up for adoption is also devastating for women—indeed, it’s almost always traumatic, according to the literature. According to a study by Judy Kelly, 95 percent of women who relinquished a child after giving birth expressed a strong degree of unresolved grief. In another study, a survey of the psychological fallout of adoption, nearly all of 300 birthmothers reported a mental health impact, which affected their relationships and parenting. Yet another, by Sue Wells, found that 207 out of 262 experienced depression and anxiety, as well as difficulties with relationships and trust, as prolonged and profound consequences of surrender. A fourth describes the long-term mental implications of relinquishing a child as “severe.” I could go on and on—there is unfortunately plenty of data documenting the phenomenon.
Yet, despite all the state mandates to provide various pieces of information to women considering abortion, this data is not part of the conversation. Twenty-eight states either provide women with a list of adoption agencies or advise them that adoption's an alternative. In none of their written materials or scripts for healthcare providers is there any mention of the trauma that routinely results from giving up a child for adoption.
This is not to say that abortion is necessarily the answer—or that adoption is never the answer. Or even that inserting more information into the various mandated texts would necessarily be helpful.
Instead, I return to another provision in the proposed British guidelines that says that if a woman is certain about her decision to abort, she shouldn’t get any counseling at all. It’s almost as if the Brits think some women can be trusted to know what they want to do without a government-mandated speech. Imagine that.
There’s so much bizarre and extreme antichoice legislation being proposed in the states now, it’s hard to decide which is worst. But, at the risk of neglecting such standouts as Iowa, Virginia and Georgia, let’s focus today on Ohio, where a 9-week=old fetus recently “testified” on the state House floor.
What’s that you say? A fetus can’t testify? Well if you can’t suspend a little disbelief in the name of fun-with-fetuses, then Ohio is definitely not the state for you. Fully half the House members there are now sponsoring the “Heartbeat Bill,” which would outlaw abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is audible. The bill’s main backers—the crazy Janet Porter and her attention-grabbing group Faith2Action group—even filled the statehouse with red, mylar heart balloons. Get it—hearts? Babies have hearts!
A standing-room-only crowd was, in fact, treated to the heartbeat of a 15-week-old fetus at the hearing. The heartbeat of the 9-week-old fetus, meanwhile, was a little harder to hear. It took about ten minutes for the ultrasonographer to detect it and even then it wasn’t particularly clear. The Cleveland Plain Dealer described it as “faintly audible and hard to distinguish.”
The person you didn’t hear at all at the hearing is a 25-year-old Ohio woman who wanted to speak out against the bill. That’s because the woman, whom we’ll call Nicole, wasn’t allowed to testify. Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, had asked Lynn Wachtmann, chair of the Health and Aging Committee,
whether this young woman might be able to testify against the bill. (I figured I’d throw in his picture here, as I really like his red-patterned tie.)
Because Nicole is the mother of two children—one of whom is severely disabled, and requires her round-the-clock care—she wanted to be able to testify by video. Alas, Wachtmann, who is one of the co-sponsors of the Heartbeat Bill, denied the request, saying the technical difficulties were too challenging. This was apparently before he figured out how to project the sonograms in realtime—presumably on the same screen on which she would have appeared.
Anyway, since she didn’t get to talk in front of the lawmakers deciding the fate of her and all the other women of Ohio, I figured I’d tell you a little bit of Nicole’s story, which she just shared with me over the phone.
Two years ago, Nicole was extremely happy to find herself pregnant. Though she already has a 6-and-a-half-year-old girl and a 3-and-a-half-year-old boy, who requires oxygen, eats through a tube and has chronic lung disease after being born four months early, Nicole felt ready to have another child. When she was well into her second trimester, a fatal fetal anomaly was discovered through a routine ultrasound. After determining her child had no shot of survival, Nicole decided to end the pregnancy—a process made all the more harrowing because neither the hospital where her doctor was affiliated or her insurance carrier was willing to help.
"I've lived my life making 'pro-life' choices, but I think you can't tell anyone else what to do," is how Nicole summed up her position on abortion. "Everyone's situation is so different."
If the heartbeat bill passes, a fate that’s entirely within the realm of possibility, Nicole—and Ohio women who are as little as six weeks into their pregnancies—simply won’t be able to get abortions.
Ohio is worth our attention for a few reasons. First, the heartbeat hi-jinx is the kind of distraction we're seeing lots of these days. With all eyes on the spectacle of heart balloons and women getting their pregnant bellies gooed up on the statehouse floor, three other bills are wending their way through the legislative process virtually unnoticed. One is a bill that would ban abortion at twenty-four weeks—a reasonable enough idea, since abortions are already banned at viability, except that this one doesn’t have an exception to protect a woman’s health against serious medical and mental health risks. Another would make the already difficult process for a minor to get a judge's permission for an abortion that much more difficult. A third would make it impossible for women to purchase health insurance that would cover abortion—even if they use their own money.
And while political theater is overshadowing less flashy legislation in other parts of the country, Ohio is emblematic of the rest of the country in other ways, too. With a newly elected antichoice governor and a recent influx of anti-abortion legislators, some of the most extreme anti-abortion forces there and elsewhere are now emboldened to reach for wholesale bans of abortion. Older antichoice advocates don’t always like it, worrying that such broad laws will ultimately get struck down by the Supreme Court. Ohio Right To Life isn’t even supporting the Heartbeat Bill.
But even if their bold, stunt-driven strategy is short-sighted, the new guard can surely claim they’ve taken center stage—and, while there, managed to drown out everyone else.
It used to be that abortion opponents would get squirrely when their “refusal clauses”—laws that permitted providers to opt out of providing care they morally oppose—appeared to allow for instances in which a woman would die. Who wanted to be responsible for a woman’s death?
That, anyway, was more or less how the conservative Republican Curt Weldon argued an antichoice opt-out clause Bush signed into law back in 2004—a time we can now, sadly, look back on as the good old days. Today’s refusal clauses are not so kind. Two pending federal bills, introduced by Representatives Pitts and Smith, respectively, both have bigger, worse versions of existing opt-out laws.
Smith’s bill, which emerged from committee yesterday, would widen the opt-out law to apply to care that relates to any federal funding stream—Medicaid, subsidies to buy health coverage, really anything. It also would make the refusal provision, which had been subject to annual renewal, permanent.
Meanwhile, Pitts adds to the list of entities that can refuse to provide abortions. Long gone are the days when the word “conscience” need apply to an actual person. According to Pitts, hospitals can have consciences. Insurance companies can opt-out on moral grounds. Hell, entire hospitals chains could suddenly be imbued with religious conviction.
As an individual, you needn’t be directly involved in providing the abortion. Pitts would protect anyone who refuses to “participate in” abortion, language that would presumably give cover to the admissions clerk, secretary and ambulance driver who have already attempted to argue in court that their anti-abortion convictions prevent them from doing their jobs.
And while the older refusal clauses worked both ways—protecting both those who felt morally compelled to refuse abortions and those who were moved to provide them—both of the new bills are one-sided, just protecting entities that refuse to provide services. That, in case you were wondering, wasn’t an oversight. There were attempts to amend both bills to protect everyone’s moral and religious convictions on both sides of the issue, but they were defeated.
“It’s clear that these are not about protecting conscience,” Gretchen Borchelt, Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, says of the new opt-out clauses. “They’re about protecting a certain view of conscience.”
But the most disturbing part of these attempts to expand opt-out law is the language in the Pitts bill that addresses the issue of women’s emergency care dead on, if you will. Specifically, it says that the ability to deny abortions on moral grounds should trump existing federal law that requires hospitals and ambulances to provide emergency care. This, shockingly, is also not an oversight. Pitts specifically designed the bill to value fetuses over live women.
Why would an emergency abortion ever be necessary? “If a woman with serious underlying medical illness finds herself pregnant, she may have to have an abortion,” says Suzanne Poppema, MD, a former abortion provider and member of the group Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. “Or you might start out a pregnancy perfectly healthy and then get breast cancer or colon cancer. In that case, the ability to stay alive and take care of the children you already have may depend on terminating this pregnancy.” Taken together, Poppema estimates such situations occur “at least several hundred times a year.”
Indeed, these issues already get hashed out with some regularity, though, so far, usually at least one party in these arguments is on the religious fringe. There was the case of the nurse in New York who felt an abortion shouldn’t be considered an emergency—and she shouldn’t have to help with it—since the patient who needed it had at least six hours to live.
And, recently, a Catholic Bishop excommunicated a nun working at a Catholic hospital because she helped a pregnant mother of four in Phoenix get an abortion to save her life. In that case, there seems to be some genuine disagreement among Catholics, since the hospital and nun stood by their decision and the bishops condemned them and tried them to get them to promise they’d never perform an abortion to save a woman’s life again.
The troubling thing is that, if Pitts passes, our government will come down on the extremist side of that debate among Catholics.
“The bishops haven’t been able to get the Catholic hospitals to do what they want,” says Frances Kissling, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and the former director of Catholics for a Free Choice. “Now you have this nut, Pitts, who is trying to get the hospitals to do what the bishops can’t get them to do.”
The evolution of refusal clauses has been gradual. They started back in the 1970s with the arguably decent idea that people shouldn’t be forced to do anything they find objectionable. And over the years, while the number of Catholic-run hospitals has been growing, these laws have been expanding—beyond individuals to include entities, beyond performing abortions to “participating in” them and beyond everyday situations to those of life and death.
Now, somehow, we’ve come to a decidedly indecent place, where Joe Pitts can proudly admit that, yes, even in an emergency, a corporation’s beliefs are more important than a woman’s life.
Editor's Note: With this post we welcome Sharon Lerner to two weeks of blogging on the GOP's sustained and multi-pronged attack on women's reproductive health and rights.
I am relieved for the opportunity to blog on reproductive health and politics. The moment is ripe for ranting, though even writing regularly I know it’ll be impossible to convey the enormity and depth of the bad news coming out of Washington and the states. I already feel like Lucille Ball working the chocolate factory conveyor belt.
Would that we were talking about a madcap comedy, of course, with only candy at stake. Instead the restrictions on abortion and contraception spewing forth daily would have a serious impact on actual people. Who? At the risk of missing a fresh, new torrent of bad news, I’m going to take a moment to focus on who exactly will be affected by the three major bills coming out of Washington.
The first, Chris Smith’s “No Taxpayer Funds for Abortion” act, is being marked-up by the House Judiciary Committee as I write. Though the discussion of tax credits versus subsidies versus tax deductions is stultifying, I was riveted by the hearing if only for the seemingly endless shots of female aides sitting silently in the background as male superiors grind out the sausage of abortion law.
You may know Smith’s bill, H.R. 3, for its attempt to deny some rape victims access to abortion. Though that particular provision was removed, the current proposal would essentially do away with private insurance coverage for abortion. To return to the question at hand, who will feel this blow? With abortions costing between $350 and $500 in the first ten weeks of pregnancy—and going up steeply from there—the answer is poor women.
The other big federal anti-abortion proposals take aim at exactly the same low-income population. The “Protect Life Act,” proposed by Representative Joe Pitts would prevent women from using their own money to purchase private health insurance that includes abortion coverage. Some women will always be able to afford abortions, even if they can’t get a policy that covers them. But a huge portion of the 15 million uninsured women who stand to gain health insurance through the new health care law would struggle to pay for an abortion on their own, as they’d have to if this bill passes. A quarter of single mothers stand to gain health coverage through the new law, as do three-quarters of women who are either “poor” or “near poor” and almost four-in-ten Latinas, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Meanwhile, Mike Pence’s various efforts to defund Planned Parenthood also target the same women of color, who make up the majority of the 3 million Americans the organization serves. Ditto for his broader effort to zero out federal Title X dollars. Guess who relies on the clinics that receive these family planning funds?
What will happen to these women? Hundreds of thousands will likely go on to have unwanted pregnancies—and unwanted children. Planned Parenthood helped prevent 973,000 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in 433,000 unplanned births and 406,000 abortions in 2008, according to its most recent statistics. Some women will delay early abortions for later, more expensive and riskier procedures. And some may join the minority of women already taking matters into their own hands.
The impact will be far broader than birth control and abortion, though.
“It’s not just pap tests, breast exams, and methods of choice,” says Clare Coleman, president and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. “If you dismantle our systems, they also won’t get screening for anemia, diabetes, or referral into other health systems.”
And, on the other end, who is driving these pieces of legislation? Who are the architects of women’s health policy shaping the fates of these millions of women of color? Here a visual might be helpful.
Take a look at Reps. Smith, Pitts, and Pence:
I’m also going to include the recently elected senator, Rand Paul, not because his Life Begins at Conception bill has any real shot of passing, but because he’s yet another enterprising antichoice senator whose last name begins with P and because, well, look at him:
There is no shortage of women opposed to abortion and birth control, of course, many of them are in Congress. But the folks leading this particular charge are, as you can see, men—white men. Gray-haired white men. Actually gray-haired, white men with red-patterned ties. No, wait. Make that gray-haired, white men with red-patterned ties who have never been pregnant, never will be pregnant and, I'm pretty sure, have never had to be the primary care-taker of children, let alone doing it while financially struggling.