We’ve seen a lot – a LOT – of legislation introduced at the state and federal levels that have been designed to limit people’s access to safe, legal abortion. With Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme court disallowed many types of restrictions that would prohibit people from obtaining abortions. But as we have seen in the past several years, anti-abortion proselytizers have found and abused a major loophole: while still allowing legal abortion, it has been possible to limit access to abortion by closing down abortion clinics via regulatory technicalities. Their hope is that by making abortions harder to obtain, there will be fewer abortions. The laws in which these technicalities are housed are referred to by pro-choice advocates as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Clinics, or TRAP laws.
TRAP laws might require that abortion clinics obtain weird licenses having to do with the physical construction of their buildings, or the way they staff their clinics, or the procedure that they have in place. I say “weird” because these laws only apply to medical providers that perform abortions, and are not imposed on other providers of comparable medical procedures. That’s why we call them Targeted Regulation of Abortion Clinics. Another type of TRAP law might require that an abortion clinic be designated as an “Ambulatory Surgical Center”. From ReproductiveRights.org:
Ambulatory surgical center (“ASC”) requirements mandate that abortion providers – including, in at least one state, those that provide only first-trimester medical or surgical abortions – be licensed as ASCs, which are sophisticated facilities designed for the performance of a range of out-patient surgeries. These requirements go far beyond the recommendations of the national health organizations in the field of abortion care, and converting a physician’s office or outpatient clinic into an ASC can be too expensive for many providers.
And the thing is, TRAP laws are working. Reproductive rights legal advocacy groups are having a tough time fighting them in court and abortion clinics ARE closing. From the Huffington Post:
More than 50 abortion clinics across the country have closed or stopped offering the procedure since a heavy wave of legislative attacks on providers began in 2010, according to The Huffington Post’s nationwide survey of state health departments, abortion clinics and local abortion-focused advocacy groups.
At least 54 abortion providers across 27 states have shut down or ended their abortion services in the past three years, and several more clinics are only still open because judges have temporarily blocked legislation that would make it difficult for them to continue to operate.
So what does that translate to for a person who is seeking an abortion? From Guttamacher.org:
Some 87% of U.S. counties do not have an abortion provider and 35% of women aged 15–44 live in those counties. The proportions are lower in the Northeast (53% and 18%) and the West (74% and 13%). In 2005, nonhospital providers estimated that while more than seven in 10 women traveled less than 50 miles to access abortion services, nearly two in 10 traveled 50–100 miles and almost one in 10 traveled more than 100 miles.
So 70% of women travel less than 50 miles, 20% travel between 50-100 miles and 10% travel more than 100 miles. Let’s look at what that means for just one recent year. From the CDC, in 2009 784,507 legal induced abortions were reported from 48 reporting areas. If the stats regarding travel distance were applied to that number it would mean that 78,450 people would have had to travel greater than 100 miles to obtain an abortion. Can you imagine having to drive over 100 miles for any other outpatient medical procedure? It’s ridiculous.
And there are a whole other host of laws that further limit a person’s ability to obtain an abortion. We’ve made the clinics hard to get to, and once the patients arrive they must jump through all sorts of hoops like meeting a doctor 48 hours in advance of the actual procedure (perhaps necessitating overnight stays, more time off of work, more financial stress) to listen to government-mandated guilt-, fear- and doubt-inducing speeches about viability and “options”. We tell them that they must watch ultrasounds of the undeveloped fetus. And of course, to even get inside the clinic they are often forced through a gauntlet of religiously-motivated abortion protesters who are willing to use virtually any tactic to get the patient to not enter the facility, including kidnapping. Here’s what that feels like, from the perspective of one woman who visited the EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the only abortion clinic in Louisville, KY.
But finally…some relief: The Women’s Health Protection Act [link downloads a PDF of the proposal*], a federal law that is being unabashedly touted by it’s backers as a response to the particularly nasty recent TRAP laws that have been chipping away at our access and right to legal abortion over the past several years. This is it. Legislators who advocate for legal abortion and women’s rights are saying “ENOUGH.” From the Huffington Post:
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will introduce the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013, joined by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). The bill would prohibit states from passing so-called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, which impose strict and cost-prohibitive building standards on abortion clinics, require women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds, and create other barriers to abortion access.
“The Women’s Health Protection Act will provide a clear and certain response to these regulations and laws that impose unnecessary tests, procedures and restrictions — including requirements for physical layout in clinics — on reproductive services.”
Blumenthal’s bill wouldn’t automatically overturn states’ existing anti-abortion laws, but because federal law trumps state law, it would provide a means to challenge them in court. The bill would direct judges to consider certain factors in determining whether a restriction is legal, such as whether it interferes with a doctor’s good-faith medical judgment, or whether it’s likely to interfere with or delay women’s access to abortion.
So much this.
Much of the language in the bill would restrict TRAP laws by requiring that legislation that would affect abortion clinics must be applicable to providers of medically comparable procedures and professions. It would protect providers’ abilities to provide abortion services via telemedicine, which has recently been a hot topic in Iowa. It would make it so women no longer have to make medically unnecessary visits to the clinic prior to obtaining an abortion.
If you want to show your support for the Women’s Health Protection Act you can sign the “Draw the Line” petition being circulated by the Center For Reproductive Rights. And you can send thanks to those Senators who have lent their names to the proposal:
- Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
- Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
- Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)
- Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio)
- Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.)
I needed to see this bill. I don’t know if I can adequately convey how heartening it is to me as an abortion rights advocate to see lawmakers introducing legislation that would help not only in the constant battle to keep abortion safe, legal and accessible, but which has the potential to fight abortion stigma in this country.
A tired yay.
*I recommend reading the proposal. I found it incredibly cathartic to read the concerns that we have long been voicing, and the fixes we’d like to see put in place, written in the official language of a proposed bill. Rarely does reading legalese make me grin like a fool, but this one did.