Evaluating Priorities: State Lawmakers Must Prioritize Health and Well-being Over Abortion Restrictions

01.27.2021

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When state lawmakers push through laws restricting access to abortion, they often claim their aim is to protect the health and well-being of women, their pregnancies, and their children.

But these claims rarely stand up, as shown in Evaluating Priorities, an online resource by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Ibis Reproductive Health. Its analysis indicates that U.S. states with more anti-abortion laws and policies tend to have fewer policies supporting the health and well-being of pregnant people, children, and families.

With the 2021 state legislative sessions underway, the Center’s State Policy and Advocacy Team—which tracks and monitors state reproductive rights legislation—examined the policy agendas of a set of newly elected lawmakers in four states to compare how their approaches lined up with the Evaluating Priorities framework. The four states—Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and Washington—were chosen because of the broad range of perspectives the states represent, from states hostile to abortion access to those with expanded access. (Learn more about state abortion policies here.)

Election results can either serve to entrench harmful state policies or work toward a brighter future for all people living in those states. Several of the newly elected state lawmakers we examined have bold platforms aimed at creating the conditions for families and communities to thrive—but others prioritize abortion restrictions over all else.

In Oklahoma—a state that according to Evaluating Priorities has twice as many abortion restrictions as supportive health policies—two newly elected lawmakers demonstrate divergent visions for the state. One, Senator Warren Hamilton, is unequivocally focused on “abolishing” abortion. At the same time, Hamilton has prioritized protecting the right to bear arms without restriction, reducing federal involvement in education, and barring transgender and gender non-conforming people from marrying or forming families. A second lawmaker, Representative Mauree Turner, has advocated for quite a different agenda: a comprehensive set of evidence-based policies to improve health. Turner’s platform focused on improving funding for public education, increasing the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, improving access to reproductive health care, and addressing maternal mortality. Medicaid expansion has been shown to improve access to preventive healthcare for women with low-incomes and pregnant people, and evidence demonstrates that increases in the minimum wage lead to improvements in family earnings and socioeconomic status while reducing enrollment in public assistance programs.

In Florida, the election of Representative Michele Rayner provides an opportunity for positive change in a state that has passed few supportive health policies and has become increasingly hostile to abortion. Rayner’s sweeping agenda focuses on proactive policies to address the social determinants of health, including equitable access to housing, clean air and water, education, and employment.

In Texas—a state with one of the highest numbers of abortion restrictions in the country—the election of Representative Cody Vasut represents a continuation of the status quo. Rather than promoting policies to create the conditions for healthy families and communities, Vasut’s platform centers on abolishing abortion and reducing government involvement in healthcare coverage.

In contrast, in Washington, a state that ranks high in supportive health policies, the election of T’wina Nobles to the state senate may indicate that the state is poised for bold, proactive legislation to support pregnant people, children, and families. Senator Nobles flipped her district—which had long been held by a staunch anti-abortion lawmaker—based on her policy agenda focusing on investment in public education, strengthened paid sick leave policies, more affordable insurance options, and improved wages.

Different prioritizations of health policies are evident in states across the country—and hundreds of newly elected lawmakers are bringing their agendas to state legislatures this year. While some states, like Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma, continue to fall short in enacting policies that improve health, other states, like Washington, are primed to advance robust health agendas. Such agendas not only improve access to abortion care, but create the environmental, economic, and social conditions for people to make reproductive decisions freely and with sufficient resources and support.

The actions of some state legislators last year are cause for concern regarding priorities in the current legislative session: Despite the pandemic, 12 states enacted laws restricting abortion care in 2020. These restrictions led to temporary clinic closures, delays and disruptions in care, and an increase in the number of people traveling across state lines for abortion care. For those unable to overcome restrictions due to financial and logistical barriers, abortion care was pushed entirely out of reach.

During the pandemic and beyond, state lawmakers must cease efforts to restrict abortion access and instead prioritize evidence-based policies to improve the health and well-being of their constituents and address social and structural determinants of health. Some states may consider proactive efforts to expand access to abortion care, including eliminating medically unnecessary and burdensome abortion restrictions, codifying the right to abortion in state law, and enacting legislation that allows all qualified and competent health care providers to provide abortion services.

What will your state lawmakers choose to prioritize this year?

The Center for Reproductive Rights will continue to monitor the actions of lawmakers and legislatures in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and will work to advance laws and policies supporting greater access to abortion care and block harmful laws restricting access.

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