Looking Back on a Horrendous Year for Abortion Rights
In 2015, conservative politicians enacted 57 abortion restrictions in the United States, continuing a five-year pattern of attacking women's autonomy over their bodies.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
The past five years have seen a steady, ceaseless assault on women's reproductive autonomy and their ability to exert control over their own bodies. 2015 is no different: In this year alone, conservative politicians have passed no fewer than 57 restrictions on women's access to safe and legal abortion.
When I spoke to Elizabeth Nash, a senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, on December 29, she cautioned that this figure might not be accurate by the end of the year because these laws are being passed so quickly. "This is assuming nothing happens in the next 48 hours," she said. "I have literally had to change the count on the 29th or 30th [in previous years]." From the start of 2010 to December 29, 2015, according to Nash, 288 constraints on women's abortion access were enacted in the United States. "That is an unprecedented number of restrictions for five years," Nash added.
In many cases, Republican lawmakers introduce anti-abortion legislation under the guise of protecting women's mental or physical health: For instance, legislators who introduce Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws—which require abortion providers to give their facilities costly and medically unnecessary renovations or to enter into agreements with nearby hospitals—say they are trying to keep women safe. Never mind that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in existence; never mind that terminating a pregnancy is 14 times safer than childbirth; never mind the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publicly opposes TRAP laws "because they improperly regulate medical care and do not improve patient safety or quality of care."
As of December 1, 2015, there are 24 states with TRAP laws in place. Over the past five years, these restrictions have forced dozens of clinics to shutter. There are now five states with just one provider remaining, putting the constitutional right to end an unwanted pregnancy out of reach for women who cannot afford to travel up to hundreds of miles in order to access a safe and legal medical procedure.
This is an unprecedented number of restrictions for five years.
In 2015, five states either adopted mandatory waiting periods before abortion or extended the length of the waiting period women are forced to undergo before terminating an unwanted pregnancy. In states with mandatory waiting periods, women must make two separate trips to an abortion provider; the required waiting period between these two trips can range from 24 to 72 hours. In states where TRAP laws have forced numerous providers to close their doors, this means that some women must make a several-hour round-trip twice in the span of a week. As of now, there are 27 states with mandatory waiting periods for abortion. (To contrast: Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a waiting period before purchasing a gun.)
This year, Tennessee enacted a law requiring women to wait 48 hours before getting an abortion. Florida enacted a 24-hour waiting period, which is currently on hold following a challenge from the ACLU. North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Arkansas all extended their waiting periods—Arkansas to 48 hours and North Carolina and Oklahoma to 72. This means that there are now five states with 72-hour waiting periods in place.
As with TRAP laws, anti-abortion lawmakers claim that waiting periods are meant to protect women, giving them time to fully consider the repercussions of their decision. Nash finds this claim fairly disingenuous. "These waiting periods are passed under this idea that this is a 'reflection period,' that a woman needs to think about her options," she said. "Well, it's a false premise because women have already thought things through. That's why they picked up the phone and called the abortion provider."
This year, anti-abortion rhetoric reached a fever pitch following the release of several deceptively edited videos that purported to show that Planned Parenthood profits off of the sale of fetal parts—a claim that Planned Parenthood has repeatedly denied. In the aftermath of the videos' release, every single Republican presidential candidate called for the reproductive health organization to be stripped of public funding. And, less than a week after a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three and wounding nine, the Senate voted to defund the organization for a year. "Individuals who speak out for the life of children shouldn't suddenly be silenced by being screamed down because an insane person does a shooting in a clinic," Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma said on the Senate floor the day before the vote.
Since 2010, 288 constraints on women's abortion access were enacted in the United States.
"I think that we will see state legislatures responding to those videos throughout 2016. We've seen governors respond to them, trying to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood," Nash said, noting that Ohio recently introduced legislation that would require women who either undergo an abortion procedure or suffer a miscarriage to sign a form specifying whether the fetal tissue should be buried or cremated; similar laws were passed in Indiana and Arkansas this year. "We might see other states looking at the handling of tissue."
Attempting to keep track of every abortion restriction passed in this country is somewhat like trying to sustain eye contact with a hydra: nearly impossible, overwhelming, and ultimately terrifying. In addition to the constant stream of TRAP laws, the renewed interest in waiting periods, and proposed legislation that penalizes Planned Parenthood for claims made in a video released by a group with open ties to anti-abortion extremism, two states have attempted to outlaw the most common method of second trimester abortion, three states have banned the modern application of medication abortion, and the Senate considered a nationwide ban on all abortions after 20 weeks.
In a December 19 op-ed, the New York Times editorial board called such restrictions part of "a tireless, coordinated assault on the right of women to control what happens with their own bodies without the interference of politicians." They are right. It is tireless to the extent that it's become an accepted part of our political landscape, to the extent that each new constraint on women's access to reproductive healthcare hardly registers as news anymore. Within the span of five years, women in America have lost the assurance that they have ultimate control over their bodies and, as a result, their lives.
But reproductive health organizations are fighting back. In November, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case regarding Texas' omnibus anti-abortion bill, HB2, which could shutter over 75 percent of clinics in the state if it's upheld. Nash anticipates that the SCOTUS decision won't come until the end of June, which means it may not affect legislative sessions in 2016. In the meantime, however, providers are doing whatever they can to remain open, despite lawmakers constantly erecting new byzantine legal barriers. "Women turn themselves into pretzels in order to access services, and providers keep their doors open as long as possible to be able to provide the services," she said. "You see both providers and women doing their best to navigate this very complicated legal landscape."