By CHRISTINE MARIE
“The most significant abortion rights case in a generation.” “The greatest threat to reproductive justice in 25 years.” These are just a few of the headlines to the many articles providing background to the news that on March 2, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Such claims are absolutely valid and accurately describe at the threat to women’s lives that is currently posed by attempts to restrict access to abortion in dozens of states.
In the next few months, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not a 2013 Texas law called HB 2, which would leave only about 10 of the state’s 44 clinics open if upheld, is constitutional. HB2 requires clinic doctors to hold admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and requires the clinics themselves to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.
While the legislators who crafted this bill claim to have women’s well-being in mind, the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agree with abortion rights advocates that the restrictions would endanger women’s health by denying women the benefit of “well-researched, safe, and proven protocols.”
The absurdity of the right-wing claim that abortion is a dangerous procedure is highlighted in a report crafted by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TexPEP). Project researcher Dr. Daniel Grossman explained to MSNBC that while there has not been an abortion-related death in Texas since 2008, each year about 100 state women die due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. According to an authoritative study published by the University of California, San Francisco in 2014, the rate of major complications from abortion is less than ¼ of one percent, or about the same rate as one would expect from complications from a colonscopy.
Despite the lack of any scientific basis for the Texas legislation, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Hellerstedt, or ties 4-4 on the case, a lower court ruling upholding the Texas regulations would prevail, nearly identical rules in 10 states would be validated, and the door opened wide for the quick implementation of these onerous attacks nationwide.
On March 4, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked implementation of an “admitting-privileges” law that would close all but one clinic in Louisiana, a state of 4.7 million people. That temporary block has buoyed hopes that the Supreme Court will rule in defense of a woman’s right to abortion in the Texas case, discouraging further advances in the legislative onslaught against reproductive justice. While a ruling against the state of Texas would be a huge victory, it would not end the war on women and the growing threats to reproductive justice. The oral arguments come as women’s rights advocates are reflecting on the already dramatic decline in the availability of abortion in the United States.
According to Esmé Deprez, author of “The Vanishing U.S. Abortion Clinic,” a quarter of clinics on American soil have closed in the last five years, in great measure due to reactionary legislation. In Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, there is only one clinic left per state. The court is not considering the many other restrictions, including waiting periods, parental notification, and the failure of insurance policies and Medicaid to cover costs that have continued to make unplanned pregnancy a nightmare for the young, the low-waged, and those residing in the South or rural areas. And if the “well-being of the woman” legal avenue is closed, those determined to control women’s fertility will come up with a new legislative angle.
In Texas, according to TexPEP, the implementation of the requirement for physicians to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital resulted in a reduction of abortions in the first six months of 13% and an increase in wait times to schedule appointments to 20-23 days in some cities. The increased wait times mean that more women will be forced to seek late-term abortions, a much more complicated and even less widely available medical procedure.
In addition, there is already evidence that Texas women are increasingly turning to self-induced procedures without medical assistance. The days of death by hidden efforts to terminate pregnancy are once again upon us. Women in Texas are reporting being forced by lack of travel funds, the inability to take days off work for such travel, necessary due to the closure of local clinics, to attempt to self-induce with herbs, teas, and medicines obtained in Mexico without a prescription. Many report failure to induce a complete abortion and having to seek emergency medical help despite their fears of prosecution.
Prosecution for self-induced abortion has also reappeared, most notably in Indiana in the case of Parvi Patel. Patel, 35 years of age, is currently serving 20 years of a 46-year sentence after being convicted of two incompatible crimes, “feticide” and child neglect. After Patel showed up in an emergency room after an incomplete miscarriage or self-induced abortion, the prosecution used ideologically tainted “medical” testimony against her, suggesting that somehow this fetus could have been saved by medical intervention.
They also argued that Patel, an immigrant disconnected from the U.S. health-care system, had attempted to terminate her own pregnancy with abortificants (pills legal with a prescription in other states) ordered online. She has one more possible attempt at appeal.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) point out “the expansion of Indiana law to prosecute women in relation to their own pregnancies endangers public health and the civil rights of all people who are or may become pregnant.” Patel’s conviction, it almost goes without saying, stands in ironic counter-position to the treatment of thousands of immigrant children currently being held in private and abusive detention centers around the country.
The prosecution of pregnant women is continuing apace with the attempts to restrict the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. In Wisconsin, Tamara Loertscher, an unemployed woman who had lost her health insurance and was self-medicating for depression and pain, discovered she had became pregnant by her long-term boyfriend. She immediately ceased using drugs but admitted to past drug use when seeking prenatal care. She was convicted and spent time in jail based on a law that has resulted, according to NAPW, in the surveillance and investigation of more than 3000 women in the state. Federal courts have refused all efforts to have the law reviewed.
In Arkansas, thankfully, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Melissa McCann Arms for “introducing a controlled substance into the body of another person,” but the state attorney general is requesting that the legislature strengthen the law to specifically include pregnant women in a way that circumvents the Supreme Court ruling. In Tennessee, activists are fighting a 2014 law that permits the punishment of pregnant women whose babies were “harmed” by the mother’s use of narcotics. In Alabama, NAPW have documented the arrest of over 100 women.
The states that have begun punishing poor women in this manner are, in general, the states least likely to provide drug treatment for poor and pregnant women. These arrests have made it increasingly likely that a woman may be afraid to go to a hospital to deliver. Increasingly, low-wage women and women of color, especially in the South, are trapped in a Catch-22, in which both pregnancy and termination can entrap one in the intertwined tentacles of the racist social justice/criminal justice system.
One of the campaigns for the restriction of abortion rights that is most revealing about the class and racial agenda of the anti’s has to be the increasing use of the slogan “Babies Lives Matter” by clinic protesters. This slogan is designed to purge the public mind of sympathy with the real horror faced by African American mothers who begin each day praying that their children will not suffer the fate of Cleveland’s 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of the police, and redirect that sympathy to reactionary aims. It echoes the 2010 billboard campaign that plastered “Black Children are an Endangered Species” across the South, claiming “the most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb,” and charging women of color with genocide for exercising their right to control their own body.
In response, groups like Sistersong, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and other organizations found the Trust Black Women Partnership to educate and insist that from enslavement forward, the cutting edge of the civil rights movement has included the right of African American women to resist attempts to violate their bodily integrity. The slogan, and its appearance at the exact moment when the nation is reminded that due to deliberate governmental neglect up to a fifth of the nation’s urban children may still be exposed to debilitating lead exposures and other toxins, must set the parameters of the type of movement necessary to defend reproductive justice today.
The demonstration of a few thousand demonstrators for women’s choice held at the Supreme Court on March 2, although relatively modest in size, helped signal that a lot is at stake. But what is needed in terms of protest is of an entirely different order and magnitude.
Since the legalization of abortion in 1972, both Republican and Democratic Party legislators have been whittling away at this victory. In the last five years, the tool they have begun wielding is more like an ax than a penknife. While there are differences among different strata of the ruling elite about just how far to go in terms of gutting abortion availability, the overall impulse is in the wrong direction.
The attempt to roll back many of the gains won by the women’s movement of the 1970s in the U.S. is echoed in Europe, where the economic crisis and the corresponding popularity of rightist solutions, is contributing to similar legislative initiatives. The roots of this offensive lie deep in the current crisis of capitalism and efforts to manage economic unrest and to maintain elite rule. Thus, it cannot be adequately taken on through bourgeois elections, lobbying, or crafting arguments to appeal to the judicial theories of this or that judge. Instead, we must return to struggle in the streets, to protests that unite the right to a safe abortion with the right to raise a healthy child of color, to marches that demonstrate that millions of women and their allies are truly ready to fight for reproductive justice.
Marches and protests and all the meetings and conferences that it will take to mount them are the key to consolidating majority opinion and public support on our side. The Supreme Court that legalized abortion in 1972 was as unlikely as any to hand down such a ruling; the decision was a reaction to women’s power in the streets. We must begin showing that political power again.