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The Year In Reproductive Rights

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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
This article was originally published on December 18, 2014. We're re-promoting today in honor of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
It’s been 42 years since Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that gave every woman the right to an abortion — but the fight for reproductive rights is far from over.
In the past year, we saw our fair share of setbacks. The tactics shifted: Rather than fight things out on a national level, conservatives waged war state-by-state, seeking to restrict and undermine matters of healthcare and equality. Politicians duked it out over abortion as well as drug use during pregnancy. A couple of cases rose from those state battles all the way to the Supreme Court. But, not all was grim: Victories, often small and hard-fought battles to maintain the status quo, were won across the country, in statehouses and at the ballot box.
Here are some of the year’s bigger gains and losses when it comes to women’s legal rights to make their own decisions about their health and bodies.
Personhood laws lost — again!
Voters showed once again that they’re strongly against extreme abortion-blocking bills, like so-called “personhood” bills that would define fetuses as people. In Colorado this November, voters firmly rejected Amendment 67, a measure which would have classified unborn fetuses as “children” in that state’s criminal code. It was voted down by a huge margin of 63 to 37% — the third time a personhood bill had been shot down.
In North Dakota, voters similarly nixed an amendment that would have added the phrase “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected” to the state constitution, with residents squashing it by a margin of 64 to 36%.
Jennifer Dalven, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project at the ACLU in New York, says these defeats should send a clear message “that voters don't want politicians interfering with their personal and private decisions. Not only did they resoundingly defeat [personhood bills] in conservative states, but one of the main proponents [Republican state Sen. Margaret Sitte] got voted out of office.”
Tennessee allowed women to be criminally charged for drug use during pregnancy.
In a July, Tennessee determined that it’s legal to charge pregnant drug addicts with misdemeanor assault charges — and those “offenders” can actually get jail time for it. (Within just a month of the bill’s introduction, two women were charged.)
While everyone agrees that it’s better if pregnant women don’t do drugs, we know addiction is a chronic mental health condition — and laws like these seem more likely to drive women away from doctors’ offices, rather than getting them off drugs.
“Again, this is a [situation] where we see politicians trying to say they're doing this to protect women or babies, while medical experts say these laws endanger women and babies,” Dalven notes. “You have to ask yourself: Who's in a better position to make these decisions, doctors or politicians?”
Even before the law, dubbed SB1391, things weren't exactly rosy for pregnant women in TN — according to Al Jazeera, 4.6% of all the women who gave birth there in 2013 “didn’t start prenatal care until their third trimester, and 1.9% received no prenatal care at all.”
The GOP took control of the Senate.
This November, voters sent the country farther to the right, with Republicans taking the Senate, strengthening their hold on the House, and winning statehouses across the country. Pretty much immediately, they began the process of slowing (or outright stopping) progress on reproductive rights — everywhere.
“During the elections, we saw many politicians try to hide their records on restricting access to women’s health care, including abortion. Now that the elections are over, we will see where they really stand,” says Dalven.
Alas, the news doesn’t look great so far. Though most legislatures won’t be back in session until January, “both in Congress and in the states, folks have already begun unveiling bills designed to prevent a woman from getting an abortion or to shame her if she does,” Dalven explains.
One of pro-lifers’ current lead goals is to pass legislation that would prohibit women from getting abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy or beyond. Lawmakers are also aiming to stop abortion providers from giving sex ed in public schools, and to ban gender-specific abortions.
Peggy Young fought UPS for pregnancy discrimination.
Seven years ago, a pregnant, Maryland-based woman named Peggy Young was put on involuntary, unpaid leave by her employer, UPS. The shipping giant claimed that Young’s pregnancy made her unable to perform certain aspects of her job (namely, the ability to lift up to 70 pounds). At the time, Young was working as an “air driver,” meaning she wasn’t lifting much of anything except letters and small packages.
Over the years since UPS’ fateful decision — which cost Young not just her paycheck but her health benefits and pension — Young has been fighting for her due in court for pregnancy discrimination. Though she has already lost in two Maryland courts, her case could have major consequences for women all across the country, as, according to the Census Bureau's 2012 stats, only about 62% of women “who had given birth in the previous year [remained] in the labor force.”
The Supreme Court is still considering Young’s case.
Pro-choice lawmakers pulled the Reproductive Health Freedom Act.
In April, Colorado lawmakers pulled a bill that would have prevented state and local governments from interfering with women’s biggest reproductive health decisions in that state. Colorado advanced SB 175, the Reproductive Health Freedom Act, through a Senate Committee, but conservatives like Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila — the featured speaker at a rally to fight the bill a mere 24 hours before it was withdrawn — put so much pressure on the lawmakers that they were forced to kill it.
The bill would have guaranteed every Colorado dweller the right to make her own choices about both contraception and abortion, while also protecting her right to privacy. It also would have stopped state lawmakers from launching restrictions in that area that weren’t founded on cold, hard scientific fact.
Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, wrote at the time, “We intend to continue our proactive effort to protect the rights of all Coloradans to make private medical decisions, free from government interference. We’re not content to play defense any more… Protecting privacy is a bedrock Colorado value.”
“Admitting privileges” laws were nixed in some states.
“Admitting privileges” are doctors’ rights to admit patients to a hospital and to give particular services in said facility. This year, anti-abortion activists in various states tried to make admitting privileges required of abortion doctors, meaning they would have to admit patients to a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic in order to perform abortions. This sort of bill would, obviously, dramatically limit care for women seeking abortions. These laws aren’t new (the first one was passed in Missouri in 1986), but they are becoming more common; since 2011, nine states have passed such requirements.
Anti-abortion activists claim that requiring these “privileges” for abortion doctors ensures that they’re appropriately vetted by their peers and helps to safeguard women. But, some states don’t agree. The laws were blocked in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin. “The place where they went into effect with devastating effect is Texas,” Jennifer Dalven says. “We’ll have to see what happens when legislators come back in January about whether more states will pass these laws.”
If those laws are widely upheld, the bulk of the South will be without abortion access, and more and more clinics will be forced to close.
A 72-hour waiting period was mandated in Missouri.
In September, the state of Missouri enacted a law implementing a mandatory 72-hour waiting period (that’s tripling the previous waiting period of 24 hours) for women seeking abortions. This was intended to slow the rate of abortions in the state; lawmakers are apparently under the impression that women will change their minds about getting an abortion if they’re forced to take more time to consider. But...is that even true? Somehow, we doubt it.
For a state with only ONE abortion provider (you read that right — the sole provider is in St. Louis), this new law has the potential to keep many women (especially those living in poverty) from abortion access, as Dorothy Samuels wrote in September, “forcing additional clinic trips, costs, childcare complications, and time away from work.” It could also compel women to delay their abortions until later in their pregnancies, triggering greater potential risks.
“The notion that women haven't carefully considered this [decision] is wrong and insulting,” adds Dalven. “Women who decide on abortion have already thought through the consequences. They are generally very careful and deliberate on these decisions.”
The Hobby Lobby ruling allowed employers to refuse to include birth control in employee health plans.
Last spring, the closely watched “Hobby Lobby” case seized the attention of activists nationwide; it seemed to pit religious rights against reproductive rights. It was carried all the way to the Supreme Court, and its somewhat devastating outcome was far-reaching.
The case centered on the contraception mandate of Obama’s healthcare law, which requires employers’ health-insurance policies to offer women preventive services that include access to birth control and sterilization. Hobby Lobby, Inc., a chain of arts-and-crafts stores owned by an evangelical Christian couple, refused to offer its employees contraceptive coverage on religious grounds. In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Hobby Lobby (and other closely held corporations) can refuse to include birth control in their employee health plans, based on religious convictions.
Jennifer Dalven says of the decision, “The ACLU believes we all have the right to religious freedom. But, that does not allow you to discriminate against women and deny them the healthcare they need. It doesn't allow you to impose your religious beliefs on your employees.”
The Murray emergency-contraception bill increases access to EC.
Though almost 30,000 women per year get pregnant as a result of incest or rape, some states have restrictions on emergency contraception such as Plan B. And, while many conservatives believe Plan B is a type of abortion, it’s, well, not — the medication simply prevents pregnancy from occurring in the first place. In September, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) launched a bill that intended to raise public awareness and access to emergency contraception, thereby making it more available to rape survivors in the emergency room. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) were her co-sponsors.
The Emergency Contraception Access and Education Act of 2014 requires any hospital — including Catholic ones — receiving federal funding under Medicaid or Medicare “to provide survivors of sexual assault with accurate and unbiased information about emergency contraception (EC) and promptly provide EC if the patient so requests it." And, hospitals must offer EC regardless of the woman’s ability to pay for it.
Though overall access to emergency contraception has increased over the years, many women still don’t know about it. The bill aims to change that. “Unfortunately, in spite of its increased availability, emergency contraception remains an underused prevention method in the United States, especially for survivors of sexual assault,” Murray said in a statement.
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