Abortion

One Last Firewall for Choice in Oklahoma?

Andrea Grimes

Anti-choice politicians in Oklahoma have tried year after year to make it harder for women to access abortion despite the fact that and have been thwarted by the courts. Now there may be no check or balance on anti-choice legislation.

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011 is the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In the past few years, a woman’s right to choose whether and when to bear a child has become increasingly threatened by federal and state laws, clinic harassment, and provider violence. Because the “right to choose” depends on many factors, Rewire is publishing a series of articles on abortion providers, state laws, and other threats to women’s fundamental rights under Roe.

Andrea Grimes is a contributing writer to Rewire.

Hard work. Persistence. Resolve. These are powerfully American traits, right? Americans love these words. American politicians, especially. They’re key terms dropped left and right in political speeches on both, well, the left and the right. But in Oklahoma, persistence has turned into a dogged political slog, with anti-choice politicians trying, year after year, to make it harder for women to access abortion despite the fact that, year after year, their efforts have been struck down in court.

“We have a great fear that Oklahoma will be one of the states this year that has basically greased the skids for anti-choice legislation,” said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a phone interview. This election cycle, Crane says Oklahoma lost a powerful “firewall” that stood between reproductive freedom and a relentless group of anti-choice law makers: Governor Brad Henry. While he was in office, Crane said, Henry would “stand between politicians and legislators who wanted to impose restrictions on women’s rights.”

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But Gov. Henry, who repeatedly vetoed legislation requiring pre-abortion ultrasounds and that protected doctors who withheld information about fetuses from lawsuits, was term-limited out of office. Sitting at the governor’s desk now is Republican Mary Fallin, who has voted against stem cell research and for personhood legislation that would give fetuses protection under the 14th amendment. Fallin will be no firewall between Oklahoma women and, once again this year, legislation that requires doctors to show and describe ultrasounds to abortion-seeking women in the hour before their procedures.

“There’s basically no check or balance in the whole state for reproductive freedom,” said Crane.

Today, Oklahoma’s firewall is not a government entity but the non-profit Center for Reproductive Rights, which has brought suit against the state on behalf of abortion providers and their patients in Oklahoma. Staff Attorney Stephanie Toti of CRR says the ultrasound legislation violates physicians’ right to free speech, right to patient-physician privacy, and women’s guarantee of equal protection under the law because it relies on “outdated stereotypes about women’s decision making ability and assumes that women are incapable of making important decisions without paternalistic help from the state.”

The CRR challenged anti-choice legislation in 2008 and 2009 on technical grounds–when laws are bundled together, rather than enacted separately, as anti-choice laws were in those years, they violate the Oklahoma constitution. But this year, CRR is going at the heart of the legislation itself. In their original petition, the CRR argues:

“H.B. 2780 restricts the performance of abortions in the State of Oklahoma and burdens the free speech rights of abortion providers and their patients. In addition, the Act exposes abortion providers to an array of intimidating civil and administrative penalties to which no other health care providers in the State are exposed.”

Ultrasounds are not medically necessary for abortion-seeking women, argues CRR, and forcing doctors to conduct them will dramatically impact their ability to provide abortions and infringe upon confidential doctor-patient relationships. At NARAL, Donna Crane says the ultrasound legislation is a ruse, anyway. While anti-choice legislators argue that ultrasound laws are about “informed consent,” giving women all the information they need to make a good decision, Crane says that’s an out-and-out lie. Instead, “this is about harassing women who have already made their decision.”

Currently the CRR lawsuit is in the early discovery stages, but Toti says they hope to go to trial late in the summer. And, of course, they will continue to challenge unconstitutional legislation that could lead the way to a federal challenge to Roe v. Wade. While there’s nothing on the books right now, says Toti, “it’s certainly down the road given the legislature’s persistence in year after year enacting these laws that are struck down as patently unconstitutional.”

Crane believes that Oklahomans will soon recognize that their newly elected conservative officials–who campaigned on a platform of economic reform and jobs–have pulled a “bait and switch” on the electorate. “This is a group of candidates that has very strong anti-choice records, but did not necessarily promote themselves that way.” Instead, says Crane, they “read the political climate” and saw a public charged up about jobs, but once in office, regressed back to the “same old agenda we’ve seen from these anti-choice politicians for years.”

Resolute dedication to taking a way a woman’s right to choose has been a staple of conservative politics in the state for decades–Crane says the anti-choice legislation “frenzy” is twenty years old. But year after year, politicians seem to come up with new ways to restrict reproductive freedom. Today, says Crane, the laws in Oklahoma are as bad as they’ve ever been.

“It’s sort of of hard to imagine how it could get worse,” she says. But each year, the number of anti-choice laws seems to tick up and up, and that’s hardly a new trend, even with recent ultrasound legislation. Each year, NARAL tracks Oklahoma’s steady increase in abortion restrictions. “If people are worried about the trends they’re seeing, they should be 15 times more worried.”

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care. Her district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

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