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Commentary Human Rights

Despite Supreme Court Win, Abortion Rights Are Still Not Safe

Kirsten Gillibrand

Attacks on reproductive freedom have the greatest effect on communities that already face significant barriers to accessing health care.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the implementation of a law that would have left just one clinic and one doctor authorized to perform abortions in Louisiana, a state of more than 4.5 million people and 50,000 square miles.

Even though four justices ignored the Court’s own precedent, the ruling in June Medical Services v. Russo gave reproductive health, rights, and justice supporters across the country the chance to breathe a sigh of relief. But as we began leafing through the pages of the opinions, cracks started to appear, reminding us that our freedom remains up for grabs and our fight is nowhere near over.

Chief Justice John Roberts made it clear his critical deciding vote was not an endorsement of the right to access to abortion care, but of following the Court’s precedent. In June Medical Services, Roberts cited the precedent set by Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case about an identical Texas law. That ruling prevented Texas from making it nearly impossible to access abortion services, and Roberts specifically noted that he “continue[s] to believe [it] … was wrongly decided.”

In his opinion, Roberts also highlighted the fact that “neither party ha[d] asked us to reassess the constitutional validity” of the undue burden standard set in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Advocates view this statement as an open invitation for future challenges to Casey, an already limited upholding of the ruling in Roe.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Roberts’ message was clear: Because the Louisiana law was too similar to the law in question in Whole Woman’s Health, he could not deliver the ruling anti-abortion activists wanted. But that doesn’t mean he won’t in a future case about a different state law.

And states will try again. Republican lawmakers across the country continue to introduce TRAP (targeted restriction on abortion providers) laws and laws that ban abortion as early as six weeks—before many people even know they are pregnant. And they will continue attempting to pass other laws that restrict access to essential reproductive health care.

Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that bans abortion at nearly every stage of pregnancy. Almost immediately after it was signed into law, advocates were able to block it temporarily, but that fight is not over.

And in Georgia, after a federal judge struck down the state’s horrifying and discriminatory six-week abortion ban, Gov. Brian Kemp immediately vowed to appeal the ruling. Last year, I went to Georgia after Gov. Kemp signed that bill into law. In the state capitol, I heard from women who had to make the most heartbreaking decisions to end life-threatening pregnancies. Their stories forcefully rebutted the duplicitous arguments behind these laws: that a state would know better than a woman what the ramifications of her choices are.

For those who fight against these draconian laws, these recent court rulings were well-earned victories. But the fact that we are still fighting these battles, and that the Supreme Court just undercut access to contraception, reminds us how much is still at stake.

On July 8 in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could limit employees’ access to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act by citing religious or moral objections. That decision could leave more than 125,000 women without contraceptive coverage from their employers. It’s outrageous. No one’s boss should be able to decide whether or not they can access any medication.

Abortion and contraception are health care. Abortion is as common a medical procedure as a knee replacement, a tonsillectomy, or LASIK. Doctors provide contraceptive prescriptions and devices as frequently as they prescribe blood thinners. Any conversation about reproductive health should be led by the real experts—individuals and their doctors, not right-wing politicians.

To undermine access to needed care during a pandemic—when we should be making it easier to access health care, not harder—is unconscionable. Attacks on reproductive freedom have the greatest effect on communities that already face significant barriers in accessing health care, including people of color, people with low incomes, people living in rural areas, and LGBTQ people.

This ongoing push to limit access to both abortion services and contraception makes it clear that the only thing these extreme policies want to reduce is a woman’s freedom to make her own choices about her health and her future.

We have to use our voices and our votes to defend that freedom. We have to fight to have more women at the table, to protect our courts, to codify Roe, to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and to guarantee access to reproductive health care in every community. And we have to wage these battles on every front—from the states and the courts to Congress and the White House.

The other side has made it clear they will never stop. Until everyone in this country recognizes that reproductive rights are nonnegotiable human rights, neither can we.

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