How The Fate of One Abortion Clinic Will Shape The Battle For Reproductive Rights
This spring, Mississippi could effectively ban legal abortion—not by outlawing the procedure outright, but by adopting legislation so stringent that the last provider in the state will likely be forced to close its doors.
Mississippi's HB 1390 is one of a rash of state-level efforts to make procuring an abortion as difficult to obtain as possible, in as many places as possible. Physicians at Mississippi clinics, for example, are now required to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital—a rule that in theory protects patient safety, but in practice excludes out-of-state physicians, who perform three out of four abortions in the state.
“This type of action is nothing new, I just think that people haven’t been paying attention,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, president of the Mississippi chapter of the National Organization for Women. “Pro-life activists have been playing the long game while a lot of us have been asleep at the wheel. This whole time, they’ve been chipping away at what access means. At this point, they don’t even have to hide behind the idea that they are just trying to improve safety for women.”
Where legislation attempting to ban abortion was once only found in the most conservative states, it has gradually become commonplace in legislatures across the country. Proposed bills range from mandatory physician admitting privileges to the offensive, dehumanizing proposal that would subject rape survivors who obtain abortions to tampering with evidence charges.
Legislators have tried to pass this type of legislation for years, but the influx of conservative politicians over the past several election cycles has turned their previous pipe dream into a reality in conservative states.
But women are not taking these efforts to curtail their constitutionally protected rights without a fight.
When Republican legislator Cathrynn Brown introduced a bill that would prosecute women seeking abortions after being raped with a third-degree felony for "tampering with evidence," the outcry from pro-choice activists from New Mexico and the rest of the country forced the bill to be amended, to clarify that the woman involved should not be prosecuted.
A small victory, the battle for pro-choice activists is long and fraught with contentious run-of-the-mill anti-choice legislation, such as fetal heartbeat testing prior to abortions and parental notification requirements for minors seeking an abortion.
“A lot of the bills that we are seeing in New Mexico this year are bills that were brought up in previous sessions, but failed,” said Christian Redbird, a project assistant at Young Women United. “Legislators are trying to revise their bills so that they will be more appealing, but they are really just making tiny adjustments to them. The intent to limit access is still there.”
While legislators often argue that the intent of this legislative posturing is to make abortions safer, what really happens is that women are unable to obtain safe abortions, with some potentially resorting to dangerous methods like wire coat hangers and drinking bleach.
In Arkansas, where the first Republican-controlled legislature in state history passed a slew of anti-abortion bills—including a bill that would prevent women from using health insurance to pay for an abortion and aftercare, pro-choice advocates have become a strong presence at the state Capitol.
“We’ve been working hard to encourage women to write to their legislators and the legislators who are sponsoring these bills to let them know that they are not happy,” said reproductive justice activist Caeli Waldron. “There are some things that you can’t change, but at least it lets them know that we are here and we are not okay with what they are trying to do.”
The group has also forced an amendment to Arkansas Republican Senator Jason Rapert’s "rape by instrumentation" bill that would allow for the use of an abdominal ultrasound instead of a hugely invasive transvaginal ultrasound.
Activists in Arkansas are hopeful that the governor will veto any anti-choice bills that are passed during this session, but they are also realistic about his desire to work with some Republican legislators on his pet issues, like eliminating the grocery tax, in the future.
“It seems like Governor Beebe is under a lot of pressure to work with Republicans on this issue, and that is largely due to the increase in the number of Republican legislators during this session," Waldron said. "The pressure to work with them now so that he can gain bipartisan support for other initiatives is pretty obvious."
The situation in Mississippi, though, is dire. If lawyers for the state's last clinic do not successfully argue that the law places an undue burden on Mississippi women seeking legal abortions, it will be forced to close permanently.
And if the clinic is closed, women in Mississippi will have to travel hours to a clinic in another state—and then only if they have the resources to do so.
“Women in Mississippi already have limited access due to long drive times and low incomes and we are already seeing women attempting to perform herbal or chemical abortions,” Roberts said. “With no access in the state, we could see even more women attempting dangerous abortion techniques like those that were used prior to the Roe decision.”
It is likely that litigation over the admitting privileges law will continue.
“This ruling is very important because it has the ability to affect states that already have similar trap laws and state who are considering passing such measured,” Roberts said. “We feel optimistic that the law is on our side. Closing the only clinic in the state is absolutely placing an undue burden on women, which is out of compliance with Roe v. Wade.”
Molly Miller is a reporter for Campus Progress.
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