Commentary Abortion

It’s Been a Terrible Year for Reproductive Rights

Amanda Marcotte

2014 will go down as the year anti-choicers' goal of ending legal abortion came within their grasp. It's also the year they opened up a new front in the "war on women" by starting preliminary legal attacks on contraception access.

Looking over the battle for reproductive rights that took place in 2014, I wish I could say that I’m optimistic for the coming year. But that, frankly, would be a lie. The sad fact of the matter is those who oppose the basic right to control one’s own reproduction have had a banner year, as they watch their efforts to chip away at abortion and contraception access finally come together in such a way that the restrictions may become permanent. Things are looking bleak for American women, and there’s no way to get around that fact.

There are three big court cases that really show how dire things got in 2014: Planned Parenthood v. AbbottWhole Woman’s Health v. Lakey, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The first two deal with the same outrageous semi-ban on abortion in Texas; the third, as you probably know, gives employers the opportunity to inflict their judgments on their employees’ private lives.

The progress of the first two cases, in particular, shows that anti-choicers really are getting close to their desired goal of shutting down access to legal abortion for huge swaths of American women, especially those who don’t have the means to travel and pay for legal, safe abortion care. The first, Planned Parenthood, was a chilling display of how little the radical-right crop of judges pushed into power by conservatives over the last few decades cares for things like precedent or common sense when it comes to hammering through their agenda. The case addressed the part of the Texas bill, HB 2, that banned doctors from providing abortions unless they have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, something that is nearly impossible for many rural doctors to obtain. In March, the Fifth Circuit ruled that those restrictions were constitutional.

Even though abortion laws must not impose an “undue burden” on abortion provision, Judge Edith Jones decided to define “undue” so loosely in her written opinion that it appears no burden can actually be undue. As detailed by Jessica Mason Pieklo at Rewire, “As far as the Fifth Circuit is concerned, when states like Texas pass laws restricting abortion rights in the name of maternal health, they have no obligation to prove, with evidence, that those restrictions will actually advance maternal health.”

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In other words, I guess you could theoretically pass a law requiring women to be ritually beaten and forcibly dehydrated before they get an abortion, but as long as you claim that you’re doing it for their health, hey, who are the experts to stop you? That logic shut down almost half the clinics in Texas.

Round two, Whole Women’s Health, has fared ever-so-slightly better. The part of HB 2 that would force clinics to meet ambulatory surgical center standards—even if all the facilities do is provide the abortion pill—was also upheld by the “all restrictions are good restrictions” Fifth Circuit court. But, at the last minute, the Supreme Court allowed an injunction against that decision. While that saves the hides of some of the clinics in Texas, however, the injunction isn’t necessarily a sign that things are turning around. It’s just as likely that it suggests the Supreme Court knows it will eventually have to deal with all these new state regulations, Texas’ among them, that amount to a near-ban on abortion, and it is preparing to do just that. Unfortunately, the last time the Supreme Court heard a case regarding an abortion ban, it was upheld. The balance of power in the Court between liberals and conservatives has not changed since then.

Perhaps it’s because those in favor of reproductive rights restrictions sense victory on the horizon when it comes to abortion, but 2014 also ended up being the year contraception ended up back in front of the Supreme Court. This was the first time the Court had ruled on the matter since 1971, when the Court decreed that women have a right to access contraception, even if they aren’t married. And this time, contraception lost, which goes to show how thorough the project of turning the courts over to rabid, radicalized right-wingers has really been. After all, more than 99 percent of sexually active women ages 15-to-44 have used birth control, and 90 percent of Americans say it’s morally acceptable. Still, that small minority of contraception-haters somehow wowed the highest court in the land.

Of course, the ostensible justification for the anti-contraception ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which the Court ruled that employers can be exempted from federal law requiring that the insurance plans you pay for for your employees cover contraception, is that this isn’t about contraception but rather “religious freedom.” This excuse is asinine: The only “religious freedom” the Court agreed to protect was the “freedom” to restrict someone else’s access to contraception. If you want to deny your employees, say, insurance coverage of blood transfusions or painkillers, too bad. “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs,” the decision read. So either religion only concerns contraception, and the hating thereof, or this is just an anti-contraception decision, with “religious freedom” being little more than window dressing to make the radicalism of it all easier to swallow.

What do we have to look forward to in 2015, then? Unfortunately, things do not look like they’re getting better. As Molly Redden at Mother Jones explains, anti-choicers now have even more seats in state legislatures than they did in 2014, and they apparently can barely wait to use their new power to pass more and more laws trying to take ownership over your uterus. And while much of their pre-filed legislation is about abortion, the increasing hostility toward contraception is peeking out already, as well, with a proposed bill to try to keep schools from hiring Planned Parenthood (as in, the experts) to teach sex ed and a bill to keep counties and towns from forcing deceptive crisis pregnancy centers to disclose the fact that they don’t offer abortion or contraception services.

If there is any silver lining to be found here, it’s that all these attacks on abortion and contraception aren’t coming out of nowhere. It’s clear that the escalation in anti-choice activism is a reaction to something, and it’s not hard to guess what it is: Women have, in recent years, really been gaining control over our reproductive capacities. Teen births are down, the average age of first birth is going up, and contraception use is clearly improving. Those against reproductive rights are losing culturally, so they’re going to try to regain control legally. Unfortunately, as this year’s events show, there’s a lot of power in going that route.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.