At the end of June, the Center for Reproductive Rights led an energized group of women’s health advocates to Capitol Hill to lobby for a piece of legislation called the Women’s Health Protection Act. The groundbreaking bill aims to stop the current assault on women’s health by prohibiting state laws that restrict access to abortion services.
Only two weeks later, the Judiciary Committee confirmed that the Advocacy Day had been wildly successful in garnering support and attention from Congress when they called for a July 15th hearing to discuss the historic bill. This opportunity signified important progress, bringing us another step closer to cementing federal protection against the state-by-state erosion of women’s constitutionally protected rights.
In her testimony at Tuesday’s hearing, the Center’s president and CEO, Nancy Northup, spoke straight to the heart of the need for such legislation: “Women’s access to abortion services is being blocked through an avalanche of pretextual laws designed to accomplish by the pen what could not be accomplished through brute force—the closure of facilities providing essential reproductive health care to the women of this country.” In the last three years, more than two dozen states have passed 200 such laws—more than were passed during the previous decade. This wide-reaching attack on reproductive health access has imposed waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, hospital admitting privilege requirements, and even regulations dictating the width of clinic hallways.
“Without the ability to access it, the right to abortion is meaningless,” testified Rep. Judy Chu at the hearing. Chu, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act in November 2013. Senator Blumenthal, a champion of women’s health and safety and a member of the Judiciary Committee, presided over the hearing where two panels of witnesses and legislators from both sides of the abortion debate offered testimony. In his opening comments, Blumenthal expressed his hopes that the proposed bill would “stop politicians from playing doctor.”
Given the aggressive and duplicitous nature of recent state regulations, it should not be surprising that opponents of the bill offered skewed data depicting abortion as harmful and dangerous. We were nonetheless shocked at the extent of the opposition’s disregard for sound science during the hearing, when just weeks ago the state legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, an organization whose president—Carol Tobias—testified at the hearing, publically admitted that concerns over abortion safety were unfounded.
Abortion is indeed one of modern medicine’s least risky medical procedures, with medical experts confirming that it has a 99% safety record. It is also extremely common. “One in three women in the US makes the decision that ending a pregnancy is the right choice for her,” said Nancy Northup. “None of us walk in her shoes, none of us know the factors that lead to her decision.”
The Center’s Federal Policy Counsel, Kristine Kippins, said after the hearing, “While our opponents attempted to mischaracterize the bill and the safety of abortion care, our witnesses stood firm, relying on the actual language of the bill and science to convey just how measured and needed the Women’s Health Protection Act really is.”
In clear yet impassioned terms, abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker’s testimony articulated a respect for—and trust in— women that was noticeably lacking in the statements of the bill’s opponents. “I want for women what I want for myself. I want a life of dignity, good health, self-determination,” he said. “We know that when women have access to abortion, contraception, and sex education, they thrive in just the manner that I mentioned. It should be the same for all women no matter where they live.”
Dr. Parker practices medicine in Mississippi, where these targeted restrictions have shut down all but one clinic. The women who live in Mississippi—many of whom already face poverty and disenfranchisement—now have an increasingly difficult time accessing the health services they desperately need. As supporters of the act consistently emphasized in their testimony, state-by-state regulation of abortion services has created a situation where a woman’s ability to assert her constitutional right to make the personal, private decisions of her life is increasingly determined by where she happens to live.
“Women’s constitutional rights should not depend on their zip code, and we are grateful that this hearing could raise that point on a national stage,” said Kristine Kippins. “We will be encouraging supporters of reproductive rights to engage with their elected officials on the Women’s Health Protection Act during the upcoming recess in August, and we look forward to the bill’s reintroduction next Congress so that we can continue this important discussion and fight for women’s health.”