Analysis Abortion

Playing Offense: Advocates Seek Legislation to Protect, Advance Reproductive Rights

Jodi Jacobson

On Wednesday, after many years spent on the defensive in the "war on women," advocates took to Capitol Hill in two simultaneous efforts to protect and advance the health and rights of women and girls in the United States.

On Wednesday, after many years spent on the defensive in the “war on women,” advocates took to Capitol Hill in two simultaneous efforts to protect and advance the health and rights of women and girls in the United States.

One of these is the introduction concurrently in the Senate by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and in the House by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) of a new piece of legislation, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA). The second is an educational campaign, All Above All, that has brought more than 150 people from across the country to educate members of Congress and their staff on the importance of public funding of abortion care for low-income women.

If passed, the WHPA would create federal protections against state restrictions “that fail to protect women’s health and intrude upon personal decision-making,” according to its sponsors. Asserting that “a woman’s constitutional rights should not depend on her zip code,” the bill “promotes and protects a woman’s individual constitutional rights, no matter where she lives.”

WHPA both retroactively and proactively addresses efforts by GOP- and Tea Party-controlled state legislatures throughout the country to make it difficult enough for women to obtain legal, safe abortion services that their constitutional rights to abortion are rendered meaningless.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

State legislatures in Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, to name but a few, have passed a record number of laws restricting access to safe abortion care, including requirements for mandatory waiting periods, hospital admitting privileges, and the size of clinic hallways, janitorial closets, and parking lots—none of which are medically necessary. Outright or de facto bans on medication abortion have made early abortion more difficult to obtain, while bans on later second-trimester abortions further reduce women’s options for terminating a pregnancy. Requirements for forced ultrasounds or those that force doctors to read government-mandated scripts containing outright lies about abortion violate women’s bodily integrity and their rights to informed choices.

Taken together, these restrictions have both dramatically reduced the number of clinics providing abortions and dramatically increased the costs to women of obtaining safe abortion care. “The cumulative effect of these numerous restrictions has been widely varying access to abortion services such that a woman’s ability to exercise her constitutional rights is dependent on the State in which she lives,” write the authors of the bill.

“In states like Texas and Wisconsin, legislatures are passing bills with the false pretext of protecting health when their only goal is to obstruct and curtail access to safe and legal abortions and reproductive services,” Sen. Blumenthal told Rewire via email.

“These laws are largely unconstitutional, and some measure of certainty and clarity is required to preempt these regulations and laws so women are not deterred in their very personal decisions based on their own values on how they want to use their constitutional rights,” Blumenthal continued. “The Women’s Health Protection Act will provide a clear and certain response to these regulations and laws that impose unnecessary tests, procedures and restrictions—including requirements for physical layout in clinics—on reproductive services.”

The WHPA uses the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to render unlawful any and all current and future restrictions because they “single out the provision of abortion services for restrictions that are more burdensome than those restrictions imposed on medically comparable procedures,” those that “do not significantly advance women’s health or the safety of abortion services,” and those that “make abortion services more difficult to access.” The WHPA also provides individuals, entities, and attorneys general with the rights to sue for superfluous violations of access to safe abortion.

“This is a great day for the women’s health movement as we launch proactive efforts to ensure that women have access to a full range of reproductive health services,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told Rewire via email. “Women, especially low-income women, across the country face many challenges to accessing safe and legal abortion—from funding to parental notification to building code rules intended only to shut down licensed abortion providers—and we fully support efforts to lift all of these barriers. “

Even absent ideologically driven restrictions that drive up the costs of obtaining an abortion, some women struggle to afford safe abortion care because they are already struggling economically. This is where All Above All, a multi-year campaign supported by 28 organizations throughout the country, comes in. All Above All is focused on lifting bans on public funding for abortion coverage, such as exist under the Hyde Amendment, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and TRICARE, the Department of Defense health benefits program.

Nearly one in seven women ages 15 to 44 is insured through the Medicaid program, and 49 percent of  Medicaid enrollees are people of color. The federal government insures low-income women through Medicaid, the joint federal-state public insurance program designed for Americans too poor to afford health care on their own, but the Hyde Amendment has restricted the use of federal funds for abortion coverage to cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest. The federal government directly provides health-care services to federal prison inmates, women in detention centers, military veterans, and Native American women, but also restricts the use of federal funds to provide abortion services to these populations. Further restricting women’s access to safe abortion care are laws passed by numerous state legislatures that restrict private insurance coverage of abortion, including 23 states that restrict abortion coverage in plans that will be offered through the health insurance marketplaces.

Numerous studies and analyses have found that restrictions on public funding of abortion prevent many women from obtaining timely, safe abortion care, and often result in forced pregnancy. Funding gaps deeply affect low-income women, women of color, immigrant women, and young women who already struggle with day-to-day living expenses and often have limited access to the resources, information, and services necessary to prevent an unintended pregnancy in the first place. Women in these circumstances struggle to pay for safe abortion services in the best of circumstances, and their options have dwindled with the rising costs that result from mandatory waiting periods, long distances between clinics, and other barriers to care.

The mission of All Above All is to ensure that by removing these restrictions, every woman has affordable and comprehensive health-care coverage that includes coverage for abortion care, “regardless of her income, the type of insurance she has or the state she resides in, so she can make personal health decisions based on what is best for her and her family.”

Organizers describe the campaign as a “bold, national, multi-year effort to bring together Millennials, people of color and groups from around the progressive universe to build the political power and will to lift these bans on coverage.” The campaign has been working for over a year on a grassroots effort to support a legislative and public education campaign to ensure coverage for abortion for low-income women. Campaign leaders point to ongoing efforts in cities and states nationwide, including New York City, Oakland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Prince George, and Ann Arundel Counties in Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and West Virginia. As of this publishing, the campaign has more than 75,000 supporters on Facebook and via email. In addition, more than 50,000 people have signed a petition to lift coverage bans. Millennials make up the vast majority of supporters.

“All Above All is dedicated to the needs of poor women, women of color, and young women. We’ve built a coalition that is strong, committed, sophisticated, and broad-based. And of course it makes sense that women of color and groups that work directly with low-income women and young women are taking the lead,” Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, told Rewire.

The Women’s Health Protection Act and All Above All are inherently complementary. One seeks to dismantle and prevent future medically unnecessary and superfluous laws and policies at the state and local level that are targeted directly at abortion clinics and providers, and that have closed clinics and made obtaining an abortion ever more time-consuming and costly. The other seeks to ensure that every person in need of an abortion will have the resources needed to obtain one. At a time when abortion is deeply stigmatized and powerful political and economic interests are working overtime to reduce women’s access to health care, passing the WHPA and eliminating funding bans will require that reproductive health and justice groups are “all in” to coordinate and maximize their efforts.

Some leaders and experts in the abortion field are concerned about whether all the players are indeed “all in” on these complementary goals. WHPA, for example, uses the framework of Roe v. Wade when speaking about viability and access to safe abortion care in the third trimester as dependent on the health and life of the pregnant person. Speaking off the record, some providers have expressed concern that this leaves wide open restrictions on emotional and mental health faced by some women in need of later abortion care.

WPHA also does not address funding bans, so while the bill and All Above All campaign efforts are in fact complementary from the vantage point of what women need, they require different strategies and approaches. Because of this, some of All Above All’s organizers (who speak as individuals and not for the campaign as a whole) have expressed concerns that, despite communications within and among groups about scheduling and priorities, the press conference for and introduction of WHPA was scheduled on the same day as the All Above All volunteers came from across the country to hit Capitol Hill on what has been a long-planned and well-publicized legislative education day, creating the potential for mixed messages and the appearance of lack of coordination. They also expressed fear it may signal a lack of commitment by some larger reproductive rights organizations to changing the conversation around funding bans.

“We often hear that eliminating the Medicaid funding ban is too politically difficult,” said Poggi. “Well, lots of reproductive health issues are politically difficult. The dynamic only changes if advocates lead the way. If organizations aren’t willing to stand up for poor women, and invest—really invest resources—in changing these laws, why should legislators? But there’s still a lot of work to do within our own movement to get everyone on board, including some of the larger organizations. We want an investment from all groups, and are still hopeful that those who have not yet signed on to All Above All will do so soon.”

Substantively, the same All Above All organizers have also critiqued the WHPA because it explicitly excludes parental notification and consent laws among the list of regulations it would prohibit, thereby leaving young women in the breach.

“We are pleased that senators and House members are willing to introduce the Women’s Health Protection Act, which will address harmful and unnecessary restrictions that have been placed on abortion care,” said Kate Stewart, executive vice president for public affairs at Advocates for Youth. “But the WHPA does not address lifting bans on insurance coverage for abortion or parental notification and consent laws—it is explicitly limited in scope regarding laws that target low-income women and young women. If Congress members and organizations are equally committed to addressing those issues, great. That is the key question here.”

“The reality is we could pass the WHPA tomorrow, and abortion would still be unaffordable to too many women,” Stewart said. “But it is time to decide—are we going to continue to set to the side the health and well-being of young women and low-income women, or are we going to truly ensure access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion for all women?”

The question is whether the openings created by the WHPA and All Above All can force a more honest conversation about long-simmering and often unspoken tensions between and among members of the reproductive choice, rights, and justice communities that can undermine achieving stated goals of promoting the rights and health of all persons.

All Above All leaders not only remain optimistic—they are bringing new energy to the effort. “Unfortunately there is a pattern in our movement that goes back decades of failing to address the needs of marginalized women, including low-income women and young women,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA. “This year we are hopeful that we can begin to change that pattern. Women of color, young women, reproductive justice and allied organizations are taking the lead, going deep and broad, using sophisticated communications, policy, and organizing strategies. There really isn’t any reason for the larger organizations not to join the effort, but we realize we are working to undo patterns of power that have been decades in the making.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

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.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

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.”