Battle for Choice Rages Through States
In Michigan, the legislative session had only been open a matter of hours on Jan. 12 before Rebekah Warren, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Michigan, was wrangling with the first anti-choice bill, a proposal to ban embryonic stem cell research.
"Michigan has one of the most active and best funded right-to-life movements," said Warren. "Things start here. We see bills introduced in Michigan popping up later around the country."
One law enacted in Michigan last year, despite a veto by the governor, redefines the time of "legal birth" – formerly considered to be when a healthy infant is brought into the world – to a fetal stage. As a result, abortions in the first eight weeks of pregnancy could be prosecuted as homicide, legal experts have told Women's eNews.
On March 1, three national pro-choice legal organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court in Michigan, asking the court to strike down the law, scheduled to take effect on March 30. The groups – the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, all based in New York – argue that the law is unconstitutional because it fails to protect women's health and encroaches on a woman's right to make a decision about an abortion even in the first trimester.
Merging on Virginia Capital
Early last month in Virginia, meanwhile, 300 people, decked out with orange neon "pro-family, pro-choice" stickers and handmade signs, joined the Virginia Pro-Choice Coalition and converged on the state capital of Richmond on Feb 3.
Inside committee rooms and outside on the streets, they declared their opposition to proposals by state legislators that will further thwart women's reproductive choices.
"There were especially a lot of young people from all over the state. It was astonishing," said Marjorie Signer, legislative vice president of Virginia NOW, which joined in the day of pro-choice lobbying.
As these pro-choice lobbyists looked on, one committee rejected a bill that would jeopardize the operation of abortion clinics by requiring expensive and unnecessary physical modifications. Two other bills on the same topic were later defeated, as well.
Deluge of Anti-Choice Proposals
Across the states, pro-choice activists are fighting against a deluge of anti-abortion proposals.
As of Feb. 1, 100 pieces of anti-choice legislation had already been introduced in the states, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization in New York. In 2004, 714 anti-choice bills were proposed in the states and 29 were enacted, according to a January report by NARAL Pro-Choice America, based in Washington, D.C.
"There are people who don't accept a legal right to abortion and want to make it more difficult for people to access safe, quality care," said Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the pro-choice National Abortion Federation, a national association of abortion providers that monitors state activities. "Each year, they try to pass legislation to restrict or undermine women's right to choose."
This year, states are witnessing a number of new anti-choice proposals that would give a fetus "personhood" rights equal to those of a living child or that require women undergoing an abortion to accede to a separate injection of anesthesia for the fetus or, alternatively, to sign a statement that a fetus feels pain, a point that lacks consensus among medical experts.
In Montana, an anti-abortion bill was introduced requiring death certificates for fetuses. In North Dakota, a proposal states that a woman who takes the "abortion pill," can be prosecuted for murder. (The proposal refers to mifepristone, which is marketed as Mifeprex and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.)
A bill in South Dakota would make all abortions illegal unless a woman faces severe health risks or her life is in danger.
"The way this is happening across the country, I think it's pretty scary, actually," said Warren, the activist from Michigan.
States Are New Legal Battleground
Anti-choice proposals began spreading through state legislatures after 1992 when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states wide discretion to regulate abortion, without completely outlawing it.
Between 1995 and 2004, states enacted 409 anti-choice legislative measures, according to NARAL.
In some states today, women must wait 24 hours to get an abortion, teens may have to tell their parents and doctors and clinicians and hospitals may refuse to provide abortions.
These barriers at the state level have been reinforced by efforts to pass restrictions on abortion that extend to all U.S. citizens. Two years ago, the U.S. Congress passed a federal abortion ban on abortions in the second and third trimesters, but the law has been stopped from going into effect by the rulings of three federal courts that found it to be unconstitutional. The Bush administration is now appealing those decisions.
The five most-common targets of current anti-choice legislation, said NARAL, are: restricting teenager access; requiring the delivery of negative literature to a woman seeking an abortion and applying a waiting period; subjecting abortion facilities to onerous regulations; promoting abstinence-only education and approving the refusal of reproductive health care.
Instant Outrage in Virginia
One 2005 proposal in Virginia caused instant outrage. The bill would have subjected women to arrest for not reporting a miscarriage or other "fetal death" to the local police within 12 hours. After an internet alert by Democracy for Virginia, a group of activists who first coalesced to campaign for Howard Dean, thousands of women, including those who had suffered miscarriages, sent e-mail messages to bill sponsor John Cosgrove. Cosgrove withdrew the bill, saying its intention was misunderstood. (He said the bill was intended to apply to situations of "full-term babies who were abandoned shortly after birth" and not miscarriages.)
Also stopped in its tracks was a proposal by Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall to make the gynecological procedure of menstrual extraction, a low-tech method of removing shedding menstrual tissue directly from the uterus, into a felony unless a pregnancy test were conducted first. Other of Marshall's ideas, including one subjecting colleges to potential lawsuits for distributing emergency contraception, were also sidelined by the time the legislative session ended on Feb. 28, according to Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.
Meanwhile, a bill introduced in Kansas could affect women with difficult pregnancies throughout the country. Because third-trimester abortions are illegal or inaccessible in a majority of states, many women with life and health-endangering conditions travel to Wichita, where Dr. George Tiller operates one of the few clinics that can help them. The proposed law would prohibit abortions after 15 weeks except at hospitals or ambulatory surgical centers. The proposal threatens Tiller's practice, said Julie Burkhart, executive director of ProKanDo, a political action committee founded by Tiller.
"I think about how many women will be affected and how abortion and reproductive rights save women's lives," said Burkhart, who lobbies against the legislation daily. "That's what keeps me going."
Pro-choice activists are fighting a similar law passed last year in Texas, where other anti-choice bills are also up for debate. One would permit pharmacists to refuse women's prescriptions for birth-control pills or emergency contraception. Another would make it harder for young women to get abortions by restricting how judges hear petitions from them, if parental notification – required in Texas – is impossible.
By rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, minors who do feel that they cannot safely tell their parents about a pregnancy are entitled to seek a "judicial bypass," by which a judge can confidentially approve their request for an abortion. The new proposal would add reporting requirements for judges and would identify those who grant judicial bypasses and the circumstances of the cases before them.