Four decades ago on Jan. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to obtain an abortion via the landmark case Roe v. Wade.
The 40th anniversary of that decision, though, hasn’t brought much cause for celebration.
“We are experiencing the greatest threat to reproductive freedom since Roe was decided,” says Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. “The right-wing, conservative, anti-women forces have recognized that it’s very hard to overturn a Supreme Court precedent like Roe v. Wade, and they have moved their efforts into the states — and provided massive resources to enact restrictions that make abortion more difficult, particularly for vulnerable women.”
Despite a more tolerant public and laws that have scaled back protests, abortion providers are still harassed and “prolife” lobbyists have been extraordinarily successful at the state level. Over the past two years, states have enacted more laws to restrict access to abortions than ever before: 92 in 2011, and 43 more in 2012, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights nonprofit. Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of that, legislating one of the nation’s most abortion-hostile climates.
Ahead of the new state legislative session, which began this week, legislators were already resurrecting burdensome proposals from past sessions. They’re circulating co-sponsorship memoranda for bills that would prohibit insurers in the new state health-care exchange from covering abortions even when medically necessary without a special rider, and permit “conscientious objections” by doctors who opt not to provide birth control or emergency contraception. So far, last year’s most controversial anti-abortion measure — a bill that would have mandated pre-abortion ultrasounds and made headlines after Gov. Tom Corbett suggested women who didn’t want to view the sonogram could just “close [their] eyes” — hasn’t re-emerged.
The assault on abortion rights may have picked up in intensity, but it’s not new. The grounds for it, says Tracy, stem from another landmark case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, testing the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act of 1982. The Supreme Court affirmed Roe and struck down a provision of the act requiring women to notify their husbands before an abortion — but it determined that state regulations could be imposed, as long as they didn’t create an undue burden for women. In 2011, Pennsylvania’s legislature pushed the limits of that decision like never before, imposing cripplingly expensive requirements on surgical-abortion providers, which must now be certified as ambulatory surgical centers.
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania chief executive Dayle Steinberg says her organization — the subject of yet another bill, proposed last spring by state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, to defund it statewide — paid for costly renovations. “They were totally politically motivated and didn’t serve any purpose. They had nothing to do with safety. And providers in Pennsylvania were already regulated by five different sets of regulations.” (Though, as Philly learned in the grisly case of the Kermit Gosnell abortion mill, they weren’t always enforced.)
Susan Schewel of the Women’s Medical Fund, which helps poor women pull together money for abortions (Medicaid in Pennsylvania covers it only in cases of rape, incest or life-endangerment), expects the price of the procedure to increase as a result of the more stringent standards. That, she says, in tandem with efforts to exclude abortions from insurance coverage, has become not merely a civil-rights issue but an economic one: It’s harder for poor women to improve their situations — or stay off welfare rolls — without reproductive freedom.
Schewel says her group gave financial support to 1,532 women last year, but isn’t close to meeting the need across Southeastern Pennsylvania.
She adds that a law allowing doctors to abstain from prescribing birth control can have only one result: “More women will be seeking abortions.”
With all this legislative activity, one would imagine the tide has turned against abortion-rights advocates. In fact, 64 percent of voters polled by Quinnipiac last year said they supported Roe v. Wade; just 31 percent thought it should be overturned.
David Cohen, a Drexel law professor who studies abortion access and the harassment of abortion providers, traces the restrictions to the Tea Party electoral sweep in 2010: “They exerted a lot of pressure on members of state and federal legislatures to get back to the business of the cultural wars,” he says. “It’s just this renewed sense that’s out there that it is for the government to control women’s bodies and women’s sexuality. That’s what the regulation … is about.”
Those culture wars never stopped, but around clinics, at least, they became less visible due to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994. “Prior to that,” says Steinberg, “we would have protests that were, like, 300 people in front of our entrances, and they would lie down and have to be carried away. It’s a different environment now.” But protesters are still fixtures outside clinics.
“There’s no other health-care provider that needs to wear a bulletproof vest,” Tracy points out. “The reality is, women have abortions whether it’s legal or not — but when it’s not, women die.”