By: Devon Maloney
The question of women’s right to abortion may be a simple as pro-choice or anti-choice for most of the American public, but the 2016 election candidates at the national and state level have far more nuanced records on women’s health. Since abortion became a constitutional right in 1973 with the much-contested Roe v. Wade ruling, governors and state legislators have been working to create targeted legislation that places limits on abortion providers.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws aim to restrict access to abortion. TRAP laws deliberately create regulatory conditions — that are not medically necessary — which abortion providers are unable to comply with, shutting clinics down and limiting women’s options for care.
In an introduction to her upcoming film, Trapped, director Don Porter discussed fight for the survival of abortion providers in the wake of states attempts to eliminate abortion. “Most of us believe that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that guarantees a woman’s right to choose, also guarantees access but nothing could be further from truth,” Porter said.
Rather than provide women better care or information, such laws take the guise of protecting women or providing safer abortions such as requiring mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds or counseling that warns of mental health ramifications and the possible links to breast cancer. Regulations are even applied to clinics that offer only the RU-486 pill, a non-surgical, early pregnancy termination option by requiring hospital-level surgical capabilities. Unable to keep up with the increasingly restrictive regulation, women’s health clinics — which may provide much needed services such as contraception, prenatal care and STI testing— are forced to shut.
In one such ruling in Texas, state senator Wendy Davis became a household name when she attempted to filibuster and kill Senate Bill 5 – “a bill which, if passed, would impose on Texas women some of the most sweeping abortion restrictions in the US.” The ruling, which later passed and was signed by Gov. Rick Perry, shut down all but eight of the over 40 abortion clinics in the state of Texas. Although a Supreme Court ruling in 2014 deemed some of the major provisions of Texas Senate Bill 5 unconstitutional, allowing a handful of clinics to reopen, TRAP legislation continues to pass at the state level, disproportionately affecting Southern, poor, minority and rural women’s access to abortion providers.
The Texas story, unfortunately, is not unique. States around the country continue to pass TRAP laws which undermine the private medical right of women to choose by limiting or preventing them from accessing accurate information or the services they need. There is only one abortion clinic left in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, due to suffocating TRAP laws. As a majority of TRAP legislation is at the state rather than federal level, stories of these state TRAP laws rarely make national news unless appealed at the Supreme Court despite the devastating regional effect on women’s access.
In a 2011 survey, 89 percent of counties in the US, home to 38 percent of American women, had no abortion providers. The result is that more than one-third of abortion seekers were forced to travel more than 25 miles for care in 2008, further disadvantaging low-income and rural women.
According to Stephanie Toti of the Center For Reproductive Rights, “its increasingly becoming the case that women’s constitutional rights are determined by their zip code,” making the fight at the local level vital for ensuring women safe and legal care.
As the 2016 race begins, leading presidential hopefuls such as Republicans Jeb Bush (still waiting on official announcement), Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker have voting records supporting TRAP laws. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, have supported not just a women’s right choose but access as well, a clear nod to the devastating effects of TRAP laws.
Although the results of the presidential election will determine the replacement of any retiring Justices and set the national tone of the abortion rights discussion, a closer focus should be on state legislator and governor elections which are far more likely to affect the future success or failure of TRAP laws.
Its increasingly becoming the case that women’s constitutional rights are determined by their zip code.
Virginia, a more moderate swing state than both Texas and Mississippi, has watched partisan politics of TRAP laws change with administration. In 2013, former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and Att. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli backed and passed a TRAP law which required clinics to match hospital architectural standards which would have required costly remodeling.
The gubernatorial election in 2014 lead to a change in administration with new Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Att. Gen. Mark Herring issued waivers to all 18 Virginia clinics to exempt them the TRAP laws. In an executive directive, McAuliffe wrote the regulations “placed unprecedented construction requirements on these facilities,” adding he was “concerned that these new restrictions may negatively impact women’s access to necessary health services.”
The change in state leadership in Virginia may have protected clinic access in the state for McAuliffe’s term but the fact that each election cycle throws abortion rights in question is unacceptable. For justice on reproductive rights, we need national leadership to guarantee legal access to abortions or state TRAP laws will continue to reduce women’s bodily autonomy and medical self-determination.
Women deserve better; 2016 should reflect that.