A ban by any other name

by Nancy Northup, Center for Reproductive Rights | @ReproRights | Center for Reproductive Rights
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 18:09 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Efforts to outlaw abortion or choke off access to it that lawmakers dress up in disingenuous language about protecting women’s health are attacks on reproductive freedom

Since the day the United States Supreme Court found in Roe v. Wade constitutional protections for women’s right to decide whether to continue or end a pregnancy, opponents of that fundamental right have been focused on chipping those protections away.

While the tactics of activists and politicians hostile to reproductive rights have varied over the decades, the goal has always been the same: to end safe and legal abortion in the U.S.

But what has emerged in 2013 is a whole new kind of extremism, with state politicians practically climbing over each other to see who can enact the most unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive rights.

Arkansas volleyed first, passing an abortion ban at 12 weeks of pregnancy. Refusing to be outmatched, North Dakota passed a six week ban—before many women even know they are pregnant. But that wasn’t enough. The legislature went on to pass a half-dozen measures designed to choke off access to reproductive health care, including a replica of a law that still threatens to shutter the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi.

North Dakota is one of at least three states with only one abortion clinic. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider at all. And with the growing number of legislative attacks on reproductive health care providers, both those numbers seem destined to rise. Your state may have 12 clinics today, or maybe eight. But for how long?

Other states are not far behind.


When 2013 began, there were six clinics offering abortion services in Louisiana. Today, there are five, after the state government harassed a New Orleans provider out of practice when it couldn’t get any doctors to submit to the ideology-fuelled scrutiny that goes with being its medical director—simply because they offered abortion services. That clinic served 12,000 women annually, providing a full range of reproductive health care, including contraception, annual exams, prenatal care, and delivering babies.

Alabama recently enacted a bill imposing multiple onerous regulations that will essentially force the already dwindling number of abortion providers to rebuild their offices from the ground up or simply close their practices. And if pending legislation in Texas is allowed to pass, dozens of clinics would be forced to close their doors, leaving as few as four clinics to serve 13 million Texas women.

How long will these remaining clinics last? How long before women in these states will have to travel hundreds of miles -- as they already do in Mississippi and North Dakota -- to get safe, legal, constitutionally protected health care? Or before women who can’t afford the trip are forced to continue pregnancies that threaten their health and future, and that of their families? Or before they resort to the kind of unsafe back-alley procedures that still account for the deaths of more than 45,000 women worldwide annually? 

The answer may depend on whether the vast majority of Americans who believe the rights recognized in Roe should be upheld—seven in 10, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll—can be awakened to the underhanded tactics of the opponents of reproductive freedom in time to put a stop to them.

Arkansas and North Dakota’s extreme bans have dominated the media recently, and many Americans have been rightly outraged. Barring a sudden seismic shift in U.S. jurisprudence these unconstitutional abortion bans will be struck down swiftly by the courts. They are bald-faced in revealing the true motives of the politicians who have advanced them, but they are not real threats.


What we should all be even more concerned about are the backdoor attacks on reproductive freedom enumerated above: the efforts to outlaw abortion or choke off access to it that lawmakers dress up in disingenuous language about protecting women’s health—while actually seeking to render the rights that the Supreme Court found in the Constitution a promise that exists only on paper and cannot be fulfilled in women’s real lives.

Reproductive rights advocates have challenged as many of these laws as we can, and we have succeeded in getting many courts to recognize that a ban on abortion by any other name remains every bit as unconstitutional.

But more must be done. Those who believe the protections of Roe should be upheld must be alerted to the grave threat posed by the well-organized network of anti-choice organizations and politicians who seek to undermine those protections until they collapse entirely.

We must call out their duplicity, and demand that our elected leaders at every level uphold the Constitution and respect 40 years of Supreme Court precedent rather than continuing the onslaught of legislation that violates the laws of the land and endangers the health and lives of millions.

Because if we don’t, it may not be long until your state legislature becomes the next to vote our rights away.