Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on March 31, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

Since Wendy Davis’ historic filibuster in June 2013, and the ensuing (and ultimately unsuccessful) popular campaign to stop the passage of HB 2 — a bill that has seriously restricted abortion access in Texas — the issue of reproductive rights has been front and center in the national spotlight. With a climate of increasing hostility marked by many states’ restriction of abortion access over the past three years, the religious right has effectively channeled public discourse in the direction of religious morality, and away from a discourse of rights or even of science. Lawmakers are also justifying abortion restrictions based on the idea of fetal pain, even though that idea has been medically discredited. There is an expanding ideological and rhetorical divide between states where politicians are successfully restricting abortion access by using arguments of morality and faulty science, and more liberal states such as New York, where abortion access is protected — at least for now.

At the end of January, the New York State Senate passed the omnibus version of the Women’s Equality Act. This was a bill that had been pulled apart by the conservative Senate only one year ago, with just the section concerning abortion access left on the chopping block. The assembly refused to vote on that version of the bill, and now the original bill — which reiterates the importance of abortion access — has been made law. While this is a victory for the national fight to ensure continued access to reproductive healthcare, it is important to remember how quickly and easily the debate can swing in another direction.

Across the country, Arizona’s House of Representatives has proposed a bill that would permit the state health department to conduct unannounced inspections of abortion clinics, without the warrant that is currently required. The tactics of groups such as the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which backs the bill, are widespread and varied enough to attack reproductive rights from many angles at once. Of course, this bill does not come with any kind of stamp of approval deeming it medically necessary, and it seems clear that “medically necessary” is a far cry from the main priority of groups and politicians attempting to influence whether or not Arizona women can access reproductive healthcare services.

There is similar anti-abortion sentiment in Texas, where there are many far-reaching health effects as a result of recent legislation. Half of the abortion clinics in the state have closed since 2011, and when the new legislation is officially implemented in September 2014, there is expected to be only six clinics left in Texas, a state that is 268,820 square miles, with a population of 26.06 million. With the new law also putting a ban on abortions performed after 20 weeks, the lack of clinics makes it increasingly difficult for women to access abortions within this legal window. Many women are already choosing to cross into Mexico to buy misoprostol, also known as the “abortion pill”, with no medical supervision or follow-up care. These are some of the effects of restrictive legislation that conservative politicians claim to be in the best interest of women’s health and safety.

These issues are not just happening elsewhere. Abortion access is under threat on a national level, which means New York is not immune to measures that chip away at abortion rights. As long as politicians continue to discuss abortion in terms of morality, not rights or research, the threat to Roe v Wade is clear. Rhetoric matters, and it’s the responsibility of states with protected abortion access to weigh in on the national conversation about abortion.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.