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Washington DC: Staging Ground for Ending Legal Access to Abortion?

An attack on DC's women is also a stealth attack on abortion rights for the whole nation.

A sign at NYC's 2011 rally for women's health.
Photo Credit: Sarah Seltzer


In the last two years, Washington DC has taken the lion’s share of abuse as a part of the Republican Party’s war on women. With Congress using its authority to dominate the district’s home rule with their own ideas for legislation, and a bitter, partisan battle over everything from budgets to taxes to what type of silverware should be used in the Capitol’s cafeteria, the House GOP has taken the opportunity to use DC as a bargaining chip, attempting to impose their own social agenda on the city to either get better leverage in negotiations or toss more red meat to their conservative base.

Despite running for office on a mandate that the national government should not interfere with the decisions of local entities, the GOP made it clear that when it comes to a woman’s right to control her own body, keeping her pregnant supersedes their avowed love of “states’ rights.” In 2010, Republicans nearly shut down the entire government by refusing to pass a budget, attempting to force the Democrats to include, among other cuts, an elimination of all government funding for family planning.  

They didn’t get their way. But in exchange, they got something that in the end may be more important – a ban on “taxpayer funding” for abortions in DC

Not allowing the poor women of the district to use Medicaid to help pay for terminating a pregnancy may seem like a small loss in the greater scheme of reproductive rights. But the success of imposing their rigid moral view on the city did something even more important. It allowed Republicans to see that they could use their congressional power to impose anti-choice legislation on a local area--a region that lacks the ability to fight back by voting them out, cutting off donations, or any other means of recourse. Even better, it presented Congress with an opportunity that those who oppose abortion have been desperately seeking: A chance to fast-track a case to the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Anti-choice activists have pinned many of their hopes of reversing the ruling on the so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” a piece of legislation first introduced and passed in Nebraska in 2009. Under the legislation, abortion opponents claim that a fetus has the capability to feel pain at 20 weeks post-conception, making that a clear point in time at which abortion should be outlawed.

Although medical consensus among almost all obstetricians and gynecologists is that a fetus does not feel pain, and the few doctors and scientists who support the allegations are either against abortion or make their living by providing anesthesia during prenatal surgeries, the combination of Nebraska’s predominately anti-abortion legislature and unique unicameral state legislative system made passing the bill relatively smooth sailing.

Although the initial impetus behind the bill was to shutter the local clinic of Dr. Leroy Carhart – one of the few later-term abortion providers in the country – the law was also pushed for an alternative reason. Anti-choice advocates were hoping for a court challenge over the law’s constitutionality, as the new restriction would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks, over a month earlier than allowable under the standards set by Roe v. Wade

However, Carhart and the reproductive legal advocates in the state didn’t bite. The doctor began announcing plans to move his clinic across the river into the neighboring state of Iowa, where a similar law was proposed but did not pass. In the meantime, Idaho, Kansas, Alabama and Oklahoma passed bans of their own, and many others proposed legislation that either did not pass the legislature or was vetoed by the governors.