Earlier this month the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the constituitonality of the state of Ohio's 2004 mifepristone ban in a case that could present a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Legal standards are increasingly replacing medicinal standards as the guide for what constitutes acceptable medical care, and conservative justices either don’t understand that or they don’t care.
In June 2004 Ohio passed House Bill 126, a bill that regulates the use of the abortion-inducting drug mifepristone. Along with so-called “partial-birth abortion” bans, HB 126 sets the standard for aggressively curbing reproductive rights by direct legislative interference in the practice of medicine. Not surprisingly, the law faced almost immediate legal challenge but now, almost a full nine years later, a case directly challenging the constitutionality of HB 126 may also turn out to launch a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
HB 126 regulates and restricts the use of mifepristone by requiring that it can only be administered in the same exact dosage as approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000. This is a specific and intentional prohibition of off-label use of the drug, a common medical practice where doctors alter the dosage of a medication based on current medical knowledge and individual patient needs. The law also imposes criminal and administrative penalties on doctors who prescribe mifepristone past 49 days of a woman’s last menstrual period (LMP).
For those women with gestational ages through 49 days LMP, HB 126 does not ban the use of mifepristone, but instead requires an oral does of 600 mg of mifepristone followed by an oral administration of a lesser does of misoprostol two days later as dictated by the FDA’s original approval in 2000. Since 2000 we’ve learned that this is approximately three times the amount of mifepristone needed to help induce abortion in many cases, and while ingesting 600 mg of mifepristone is considered safe, there is no advantage nor medical need to take three times as much medication as is necessary. Yet that is the law in Ohio.
HB 126 also requires women follow the treatment protocol printed in 2000, which requires no less than four separate clinic visits when taking mifepristone. This includes one visit for a follow-up ultrasound to confirm termination of the pregnancy. HB 126 mandates this as the legal course of medical treatment for women with no exceptions of any kind.
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At the time the law was passed it was considered an aggressive and controversial move by anti-choice activists to push a potential challenge to Roe. Challengers to the ban argue the law is unconstitutionally vague and impermissibly interferes with a woman’s constitutionally protected privacy rights. Supporters of the ban insist the law is nothing more than a reasonable regulation of abortion and therefore constitutional. Opponents launched a legal challenge within two months attacking the constitutionality of the law and challenging the legislature’s insistence on substituting its judgment for medically sound, peer-reviewed evidence on the safety and efficacy of mifepristone.
Initially the law was enjoined, but through a series of procedural rulings and challenges the Ohio Supreme Court was ultimately asked to address the off-label use of mifepristone specifically under state law before the issue of the constitutionality of the ban could be reached by the federal court.
In a split decision that reverberated with political engineering and charges of judicial bias, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state law did properly ban the use of mifepristone. The opinion openly embraced the idea that legislators can and should dictate specific medical practices in the name of regulating abortion and sent the issue of the constitutionality of the ban back to the federal courts with a Supreme Court that is increasingly hostile to abortion rights waiting in the shadows.
A series of procedural challenges and rulings resulted in the law being enjoined. But in May, 2011 a federal district court ruled that since the Ohio ban failed to include an exception for the life or health of a woman it was unconstitutional. On the surface that sounds like a good result. But the court also ruled the ban was not too vague nor did it impose an undue burden on a patient’s right to choose abortion, nor did the ban violate a woman’s right to bodily integrity, all holdings that directly challenge the fundamental constitutional protections of reproductive rights. And now all these issues sit before the conservative Sixth Circuit bolstered by an Ohio Supreme Court that saw no problem with legislators dictating medical practice.
A decision from the Sixth Circuit should come by the end of the summer and, should the ban be upheld women’s rights activists could be faced with a similar dilemma in the wake of the Fifth Circuit Texas mandatory ultrasound law.
In the meantime and while those legal challenges snake their way through the courts, what we are left with in Ohio, and elsewhere in states like Kansas, Arizona, Texas, Virginia and on and on is an increasingly destructive relationship between anti-choice legislators and the treatment of women medical patients. These types of bans don’t just limit choices women have in accessing reproductive health care, they fundamentally change how doctors are allowed to treat women. Legal standards are increasingly replacing medicinal standards as the guide for what constitutes acceptable medical care, and conservative justices either don’t understand that or they don’t care. We’ve seen this in the Fifth Circuit with the mandatory ultrasound decision and we could likely see it again from the Sixth Circuit and mifepristone bans. And if we push the issue even further, we’ll likely see it from the Supreme Court as well.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.
“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.
Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.
The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”
The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.
The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.
After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.
“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.
During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”
A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.
In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’sHealth, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.
So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.
With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.
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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”
Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.
And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.
Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.
There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”
If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.
They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.
But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.
After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.
But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?
If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.
Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.
It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”
But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?
Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.
If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.
Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.
Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.
And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.
There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.
The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.
Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v.Carhart,when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.
Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.