The Secret Anti-Abortion Law That's Sweeping America

The Right Wing

Last November, a new law went into effect in Texas: abortion clinics would now be required to have an agreement with a local hospital so that patients needing treatment could be transferred.

Now that sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

Perhaps, until you consider the fact that it caused one-third of health centers to stop providing abortions. Women in the Rio Grande Valley now have to travel hundreds of miles (if they're lucky enough to have the transportation and resources) to get access to a safe, legal abortion.

The Texas legislature has become an extreme example of new restrictions on abortion continuing to sweep statehouses in 2014, and the particulars buried by all those Wendy Davis profiles showcase a slick new tactic of the pro-life movement: a requirement for admitting privileges. At first glance, that kind of rule appears designed to protect women's health – to have an abortion provider make an arrangement with a local hospital in case of an emergency seems harmless, even helpful.

But this law, like so many others in the works, also imposes all kinds of obstacles to providers and clinics actually gaining these privileges. The end result: abortion clinics are shutting down all across the country. And because the (often Evangelical) bill-crafting language is so deceptively reasonable and so effective at defusing public outrage, we might not even have noticed that our constitutional right to safe and legal abortions is being steadily eroded.

Under the notorious House Bill 2, qualified Texas physicians may be denied privileges for reasons that have nothing to do with their credentials. Some hospitals, for instance, require providers to admit a certain number of patients each year. But because abortion is extremely safe and rarely warrants a referral to a hospital, meeting these quotas may be difficult – if not downright impossible. Sometimes hospitals may be religiously affiliated and will therefore deny abortion providers admitting privileges applications, or doctors may be required to live within a certain distance from a hospital.

Dr Sherwood Lynn, an abortion provider in San Antonio, told me that hospitals won't even send him the paperwork required to apply for privileges, and give no explanation for doing so. Hospitals have the power to dictate the kind of healthcare available to women in their communities, and they are using that power arbitrarily. 

The admitting-privileges workaround is growing across the country, and at an especially alarming rate in neighboring states around Texas. Oklahoma's SB 1848, for example, could shut down two of three abortion providers in the state; in Louisiana, HB 388 could close three of the five. This May, a case challenging an Alabama admitting privileges law will go to trial.

The trend began with a 2012 Mississippi law that would have closed all abortion clinics in the state. Physicians performing abortions in Mississippi were required to be board-certified obstetrician-gynecologists and have admitting privileges at an area hospital. Though a court eventually blocked the law, it sparked a new pro-life maneuver: bills with similar language appeared, state-after-state, like clockwork in the laboratory of democracy.

This is not a coincidence. Lawmakers are not suddenly concerned about women's health. According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, in 2013 alone, 22 states adopted 70 different restrictions, including late-abortion bans, doctor and clinic regulations, limits on medication abortions and bans on insurance coverage.

And medical experts have disputed these restrictions again and again. In an amicus brief filed in response to the passing of the Texas law last year, the American Medical Association and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote:

There is no medical basis to require abortion providers to have local hospital admitting privileges … Unless there is a substantial public health justification, legislators should not interfere with patient care, medical decisions, and the patient-physician relationship.

To repeat: there is no medical basis for the restrictions. But legislators seem to care little for reason, or even actual medical advice. Because the pro-life movement hasn't succeeded at overturning Roe v Wade, they're focussing on generating enough red tape to shut down as many abortion facilities as possible.

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