Q & A Abortion

While Arkansas Politicians Curb Reproductive Rights, Allies Fight Back With Massive Rally

Robin Marty

Rally organizers Claudia Reynolds-LeBlanc and Donna Shade discuss how Arkansas citizens aren't going to let anti-choice legislators take away reproductive rights without a fight.

With two highly unconstitutional pre-viability abortion bans on the books, Arkansas has gone from an often overlooked state in the reproductive rights battle to a leader in abortion restrictions. This is new territory for women’s rights groups in Arkansas, and one that they are eager to organize around before access to abortion becomes more of a concept than a reality in the state.

Fighting back at this magnitude may be a new challenge for these groups, but they have quickly risen to the challenge. This Saturday, March 23, a group of activists organizing on Facebook will take their protest to the Capitol, where over 1,200 reproductive rights supporters are expected to gather to make their voices heard.

The protest promises speakers like State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Rita Sklar, and Jaime Goswick, a Humanist minister and the catalyst for the protest. It will also remind anti-choice state politicians that not every person in the state agrees with their anti-abortion, anti-birth control agenda, and that those people vote.

Rewire spoke with two of the event’s organizers, Claudia Reynolds-LeBlanc and Donna Shade, over email to learn more about how Arkansas went from being a mostly quiet state with regard to anti-choice legislation to the country’s leader, and how pro-choice advocates hope to win back their rights.

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Rewire: For the most part, Arkansas has really been off the radar for people who actively watch for threats to reproductive rights, yet this session bills are flowing left and right. Is this a result of the 2012 election, and if so, how did Arkansas end up with a more anti-choice legislature than before the election when so many other states went in the opposite direction?

Claudia Reynolds-LeBlanc: Certainly, the 2012 election saw the Arkansas Republican Party take majority control of our legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, a component of the massive flow of anti-choice legislation. This legislature is a reflection of the large number of religious conservatives in the state. Our state also has the highest percentage of lawmakers with no college education, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Not only is the legislature undereducated compared to the rest of the nation—we have an electorate that is below the national norm in college education. One in five drop out of high school at the ninth grade level. In addition, Arkansas has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. It is true that the Democratic Party has controlled the state legislature since Reconstruction, and just in 2012 included the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in their party platform, due in part to pressure from grassroots sources.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas (DPA) has been predominantly a Blue Dog party, and some members even run as conservative and “pro-life.” As a matter of fact, often the Republican party won’t even field a candidate against an incumbent Democrat, because the incumbent has served the Republican platform better than the Democratic one—as in the case of former Congressman Mike Ross. Since Obama was first elected in 2008, there’s been a surge in Tea Party “patriot” activity and membership in Arkansas. Correspondingly, there was conflict within the DPA regarding support of the president and his policies, such as the Affordable Care Act. During the 2010 midterm campaigns, sometimes even on the part of Democrats, there was a lot of use of coded language and subtle race baiting, a strategy designed in the backroom plans of entrenched state partisans. The GOP gained seats in the legislature in 2010, but it has taken them until last year to reach a majority. As a result of the blurring of party lines in Arkansas, the House committee that passed the most restrictive abortion and birth control bills is controlled by 11 Democratic legislators and nine Republican legislators. We have felt pretty hemmed in here.

Rewire: Because Arkansas has been traditionally better at stopping these type of bills before they become law, the state doesn’t seem to have the network of women’s rights advocates that you’ll see in other states that are under constant assaults, such as a local NARAL, a state reproductive justice group, or a religious organization for reproductive rights. How hard has it been to organize legislative opposition due to this, and has this become a bit of a turning point for grassroots reproductive justice organizing in the state?

Donna Shade: I think the combination of the previous long-term stability of our reproductive rights circumstances and a sense of isolation among actually invested feminists has been the reason for so little past organizing here. Lack of economic opportunity, a mostly rural geography, race and class divisions, and religious pressures in communities are some of the difficulties advocates face when considering attempts to organize. The number of college-educated and professional women has grown in Arkansas in the decades since Roe v. Wade, but younger women have grown up with reproductive choice being an accepted fact of life. The environment, the Bush legacy of war and the security state, and economic issues have been the most pressing for them until recently. They are the ones who are more likely to be independent, career- or activism-oriented women. Veteran second-wave feminists are very few, though there are more who identify as at least moderately feminist. Traditionally there hasn’t been much activist culture in Arkansas, but I think it was beginning to break forth as a result of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which had surprising traction here, especially in Little Rock. This situation has certainly mobilized women, and it’s been delightful for all of us to learn how much vaster our numbers are than we thought. A sense of solidarity has built rapidly.

We created the Arkansas…Stop This War on Women and Justice Facebook event and group page on January 31, and immediately received the support of over 700 “virtual grassroots lobbyists” who have worked tirelessly, researching and tracking bills, tweeting the issue, emailing media, and calling and emailing legislators and the governor. The availability of social media has been a tremendous help in our finding each other and working together, but our members are also getting the word out to their neighbors and friends, and reporting strong disapproval of the legislature. Through our Rapid Response Action Alert postings we were able to generate record-breaking numbers of veto request calls to the governor’s office, twice—for the 12-week and the 20-week abortion bans. Sadly, the conservative majority in the legislature overturned his vetoes.

We have experienced a turning point for grassroots reproductive justice organizing in Arkansas, but these are just the battles.

Rewire: With Arkansas (for the moment) being the most restrictive state in the nation, you’re receiving national attention at a historical level. Is that helping to build a grassroots response, emboldening anti-choice politicians, or both?

CRL: The anti-choice politicians needed no national media attention to embolden them in their legislative tactics. National attention is fantastic for the morale of the women of Arkansas and has aided in keeping our spirits up and our hope alive. It has been hugely  important to us in building momentum, and we hope coverage continues to increase through Saturday. A big spotlight on our situation and efforts could make an immense difference in how successful we are at having enough impact to create the sustained movement we need, the number of bills the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights has to challenge in court now is growing by the day, and national coverage can help generate more material support for them, while it also brings pressure on the state through widespread public opinion. It would wonderful to see an influx of people from all over on Saturday, who organized to come show their support for this fight. I think it’s clear that what this fight is over goes beyond Arkansas.

Rewire: Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) is an open religious evangelical missionary in his own community. Does Arkansas have a history of religious leaders (pastors, ministers, reverends, and the like) running for office, or is this a more recent phenomenon?

DS: The majority, if not all, of Sen. Rapert’s missionary work takes place overseas in places like Uganda and the Philippines. Arkansas has a track record of running religious leaders for the legislature, and as one of the most highly religious states in the nation, we often see religious affiliation in campaign materials along with the quote “Arkansas family values.” I used to question folks as to what “Arkansas family values” meant and rarely got an answer. I have come to the conclusion that it means the candidate is a white, male church pillar with an impeccable but docile wife and freshly scrubbed children. It seems to also mean: if it is not affluent, white, and heterosexually centered, yours just might not be considered a family. Concerns of single parent families, the LGBT community, and people of color are not addressed. Acknowledgement of the existence of non-traditional families is avoided in the public sphere.

Rewire: The rally is already showing signs of growing and is likely to be a huge showing of support for reproductive autonomy. What are your plans to turn that energy, activism, and physical turnout into ongoing reproductive rights support in the state?

CRL: This is a matter of human dignity. As reprehensible and injurious as they are, the relentless attacks on reproductive justice are just the tip of the iceberg with this legislature. Compared to previous sessions, the number of bills is massive this year and includes, among many more outrages, moves to re-segregate schools, reductions in state scholarship funding, voter disenfranchisement via voter ID, mandatory drug testing for recipients of public assistance and even unemployment, protection of polluters against regulations to protect drinking water sources, making bond issue laws friendly and a better bargain for investors in a new steel mill (40 percent owned by Koch Brothers), criminalizing whistle blower photographers in the state’s large pork and poultry industry, and even limitations on body art. Saving the zygote has taken the lead in this legislative session, yet the death penalty is still in place in Arkansas. Our legislature went hellfire fury to put the almighty gun into the church but still have to decide if they are going to “talk about Medicaid expansion” this session. Though the anti-women bills have become the focus, justice for all of human society in the state is at stake.

DS: We must conduct a full-scale restructuring within the community that will change the meme of the conversation about human rights and equality in Arkansans. Democracy has been hijacked in Arkansas; women are the hostages. We have to have the justice and equality conversation on behalf of all of Arkansas: women, children, LGBT individuals, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, the underemployed, the unemployed, poor and working class students, and the environment. We must educate the electorate in curing these social ills that hurt the whole of society. Our plans are to harness the grassroots energy and outrage that can begin a strong movement and take it to the people as a whole within the community. We intend to prepare for the upcoming midterm elections by conducting community forums across Arkansas in an effort to start the discussions about the lack of  human and environmental justice in our state. We’re preparing to field progressive female candidates in time for the 2014 election. We have so many plans and goals that will require funding, and we’ll be attempting to decide on ways to achieve the needed funds, but we will find ways! The tasks are daunting, but with perseverance and solidarity in purpose, we intend to win the war.

The Stop This War on Women rally will be held at the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, Saturday, March 23, from 3 to 5 p.m.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

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’s Health, 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.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

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”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

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.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

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.