For years now, Republicans have succeeded in passing a slew of laws at the state level that have chiseled away at the abortion rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade by mandating waiting periods and tests before women can get abortions while shutting down clinics across the country by imposing standards that other medical facilities don't face.
On Tuesday, Democrats pushed back on that systematic downgrade of women's rights in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held to consider the Women's Health Protection Act. If passed, it would make the passage of abortion clinic–specific laws unlawful, especially when they impose a medical standard that doesn't apply to all medical providers and facilities for comparable procedures.
“The reason for this bill is the cascading avalanche of restrictions on reproductive care across the country,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the lead sponsor of the legislation. “Our goal is to stop politicians from playing doctor.”
Since 2007, states have passed 249 laws intended to limit access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Some of the restrictions force women to wait 24 hours after their initial visit to the doctor before proceeding with the abortion or require them to undergo an ultrasound. Virginia even tried to mandate an ultrasound that would require vaginal penetration, but that version of the law was defeated amid public uproar.
In Texas last year, a law passed that imposed stringent requirements on clinics and resulted in the closure of about half of the state's abortion clinics—down from 44 such facilities in 2011. Women's rights advocates say that in a state as big as Texas, that's not enough to meet the needs of women who may not have the financial resources or ability to travel long distances for reproductive health care.
If enacted, the new federal law would make it illegal to limit access to abortion services unless such a provision advances women’s health or the safety of the medical procedure.
Republicans characterized the draft law as a dangerous effort to disenfranchise states of the ability to enforce regulations that protect women.
“This legislation sets a dangerous precedent because it would put an unconstitutional limit on a state's ability to ensure the safety of abortion procedures,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., one of five female lawmakers testifying before the Senate panel.
In so many words, the debate seemed to center on the specifics of Blumenthal’s bill, but the real battle was over abortion itself.
In reality, these state laws are an effort to regulate abortion clinics out of practice “under the false pretense of protecting women’s health,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
After Roe v. Wade, access to abortion services became a constitutional right, Democratic lawmakers and abortion rights supporters said time and again during the hearing. Consequently, the state laws unfairly discriminate against women’s access to this care by virtue of their address, they said.
Republicans and antiabortion advocates rejected that line of thinking.
The new legislation “disregards popular and commonsense [state] laws,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “Large majorities of Americans support strong abortion restrictions that this bill will overturn.”
At one point Blackburn held up an image of her grandson as a developed fetus for several minutes, a tactic often employed by antiabortion advocates to cause people discomfort about terminating a pregnancy.
The hearing comes less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled that family-owned religious corporations do not have to pay insurance coverage for contraception. The 5–4 ruling ignited a national debate about birth control, leaving progressives alarmed that America is rolling back the clock on women’s rights.
While Blumenthal has 35 sponsors in the Senate, and a companion bill in the House has 125 sponsors, it’s unlikely to go anywhere in the near term. The Republican-controlled House has already passed an antiabortion bill this session of Congress and would almost certainly reject the Women’s Health Protection Act if it came to the floor.