Extremism in Overdrive

As the director of the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, the only reproductive health care provider still offering abortion care in the entire state of North Dakota, Tammi Kromenaker is used to being one of the last lines of defense for access to reproductive health care. But the latest onslaught of anti-choice measures from extremist legislators took even her by surprise.

"We already have so many restrictions. How could they possibly pass more?" she says. "What could they come up with that's crazier than what we have?"

The answer, it turns out, is a handful of proposals that North Dakota's legislators didn't come up with at all. The latest attacks in the state are pre-packaged bills drawn from an anti-choice playbook increasingly in use across the U.S. The legislative assault on North Dakota's sole abortion provider is part of a coordinated, systematic effort to choke off access to safe, comprehensive reproductive health services nationwide.

The Center has been battling side by side with Tammi and the Red River Women's Clinic for many years, and will lead the legal battle against the three recently enacted laws that pose the greatest risk to women's health. For one law in particular, the Center brings vital experience.

SB 2305 is a measure with the singular goal of stopping Tammi and her staff from providing health care to the 1,500 women they serve every year. The law requires any doctor performing an abortion to have "admitting privileges" in a local hospital.

Extremist politicians routinely couch these regulations as intending to protect women, but from what? Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures practiced; fewer than half of one percent of abortions lead to complications that require hospitalization. Ignore for a second the fact that politicians don't require this "protection" with any other practitioners of office space surgery. The bottom line is that in the very rare case that a woman needs emergency care after an abortion, she will go to the closest emergency room and that hospital will admit her.

This law effectively leaves it to local hospitals to determine whether the women of North Dakota can exercise the fundamental right to make their own decisions about their reproductive health and future. And in a political climate as charged as North Dakota's is on this issue, those hospitals are highly unlikely to put themselves on the line by granting the admitting privileges required under the law.

Is all this starting to sound familiar? It should, because it's a copycat of a Mississippi law that the Center has prevented from taking effect for the past year. The Mississippi governor called the measure a "first step" in making his the first "abortion-free" state in the United States—and hostile politicians in North Dakota seek to do nothing less.

The admitting privileges law might be the most devious measure to come out of the North Dakota legislature, but it's not the most outrageous. Gov. Jack Dalrymple also signed the most extreme abortion ban in the U.S., at around six weeks into the pregnancy—and before many women even know they're pregnant. The Center will soon fight this law and another clearly unconstitutional abortion ban.

All of these laws—and much of the anti-choice legislation making the rounds today—are a product of Americans United for Life, a group dedicated to ending access to safe and legal abortion across the entire country. The organization's website offers visitors the opportunity to order model legislation of their very own. Just fill in a name and address, tick off a few boxes, and cookie-cutter model legislation attacking reproductive rights suitable for proposing in your state legislature will soon be on the way.

It's bad enough that politicians feel perfectly comfortable imposing their own ideologies on women. But to rely on an organization headquartered 1,300 miles away, in Washington, DC, is even more shameful. Perhaps that's why they won't cop to it. "I think if you were to ask sponsors, they would say they're motivated by their hearts, by the children. They'll say, 'I want to help women,'" Tammi Kromenaker says. "I don't think they'd admit that they took it out of the playbook."

And, as someone well acquainted with day-in, day-out work of actually helping women, she can say with plenty of authority that the claims politicians make about designing laws to protect women are just plain dishonest. If the Red River Women's Clinic can no longer deliver care to its patients, countless women will have to travel hundreds more miles to South Dakota or Minnesota—if they can afford it.

Tammi herself has logged many miles advocating for the health and rights of the women of her state, traveling to testify before the legislature, speaking out on national television. But she would very much like to go back to focusing on her role first and foremost as a health care provider. Ultimately, fighting battle after battle to keep the clinic open is a drain on resources, and takes precious time away from caring for her patients.

"I'm up for this challenge," she says. "I'll be that person, but I really want to operate this clinic."

North Dakota's legislature meets every two years, and Tammi has come to dread the biennial onslaught against women's health in her state. Tammi and the Center had little time to relish the recent victory over an unconstitutional ban on medication abortion—a product of the 2011 legislative session-before turning attention to this year's attacks. And she knows that a so-called "personhood" amendment—granting full legal rights and protections to every fertilized human egg—is scheduled to appear on the state's 2014 ballot.

But she also feels that the political climate may finally be shifting at least somewhat as the attacks become more extreme, and the people of North Dakota begin to take notice.

"Right now, in ND, it feels different than it ever has," she says. "This session has put abortion on everyone's radar. People are stopping me on the street, in coffee shops. People are finally outraged."

She also knows the Center for Reproductive Rights will continue to stand with her clinic and all the women throughout North Dakota that she and her staff serve. "We've been in this battle together for a long time," says Tammi. "And I know that no matter what law comes our way, we'll keep fighting to protect women's health."

 

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