On Tuesday, the day the new Congress was sworn in, House Republicans introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. The measure seeks to undermine Roe v. Wade and depends on medically unsound claims about a fetus’s ability to feel pain at that time. It’s an early indication that the GOP-controlled Senate could allow the wave of abortion restrictions that has hit state legislatures in recent years—231 enacted by states since 2010—to find new footing in federal law.
Tuesday’s salvo is a depressing reminder of what the midterm elections may mean for abortion rights, but it’s also an opportunity to think about where the reproductive health, rights and justice movements have maintained or gained ground in recent years. State legislatures are the place to find these victories as well, according to a report released late last month by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Its roundup of proactive policy solutions is a helpful reminder of what’s possible as lawmakers return to state capitals early this year.
Some of the solutions have been around for a while. There is mention of states using their own funds to provide Medicaid coverage of abortion, thus bypassing the decades-old restriction imposed by the Hyde Amendment. States that provide family leave coverage beyond the federal standard are applauded. But innovations and new experiments are lifted up in the report as well.
Pregnant and parenting teens in New Mexico have a new shot at successfully completing high school, thanks to an excused absence policy adopted by the state’s schools in 2013. The new law reframes the long-vilified pregnant teen as a young person who is trying to raise a child while getting an education. The law acknowledges that doctor’s appointments, morning sickness, and caring for a sick child are legitimate reasons for missing school, not absences that should count against a teenage parent.
Legislators in Rhode Island and Washington want to make contraception more affordable and accessible by allowing women to fill a one-year prescription of birth control. A 365-day supply can bring down the cost of co-pay and has proven effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies. According to a University of California, San Francisco, study, when low-income women who rely on public coverage of contraception received a one-year supply of birth control pills rather than a one- or three-month supply, the pregnancy rate decreased by nearly a third and the abortion rate by 46 percent. A bill governing such prescriptions was introduced in Rhode Island last year and another has passed in Washington.
California has been a leader in acknowledging that medical professionals other than doctors can safely provide critical reproductive health services. In 2013, the state passed a law allowing trained nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to provide first-trimester abortions. Because thirty-eight states have laws requiring that only physicians can be abortion providers, developments in California—and in Connecticut and Washington where non-physician clinicians can provide medication abortions—offer a model to other states.
State lawmakers have also voted to stop shackling women who give birth while incarcerated and convened maternal mortality review committees charged with examining why black women are four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. The Center for Reproductive Rights report offers insights from the policy advocates and grassroots activists who worked with their legislators to make these victories possible. It offers a glimmer of hope at a moment when, after the GOP came out swinging this week, the federal landscape on reproductive rights can feel bleak.