Courts strike 1-2 punch at reproductive rights

Reproductive justice took a one-two punch in unrelated court decisions on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. One court allowed a medically unnecessary law to close many women’s health centers that perform abortions in Texas. The other ruling was a “partial victory” for right-wingers who oppose the Affordable Care Act’s provision that employer-sponsored plans must provide free coverage for contraception.

On Oct. 31, a three-judge panel in the Fifth Circuit Court mandated that a Texas law go into effect immediately that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. That ruling overturned an Oct. 28 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel that the law was unconstitutional.

As a result, a third of the 36 women’s health care clinics in Texas were forced to close, denying more than 100 women these procedures on Nov. 1. Marva Sadler, of the Whole Women’s Health Center in Ft. Worth, told on Nov. 1 that of the 15 women whose abortions were cancelled, 14 said they did not have the money to travel long distances to get care and would have to carry these unintended pregnancies to term.

On Nov. 4, reproductive rights groups countered by filing an emergency application to the Supreme Court to reinstate Yeakel’s injunction and allow the law to proceed through the courts for a hearing scheduled in January. Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups filing the application, noted that the Texas mandate is opposed by leading medical associations and that its only purpose is to deny women access to safe medical care. (, Nov. 4)

Such arguments were heard loud and clear when Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis conducted an heroic 11-hour filibuster against the bill last June that ignited a firestorm of protests involving thousands of women and supporters, who swarmed the Capitol in Austin for several weeks.

As the immediate response of women seeking abortions shows, the law obviously discriminates against poor women, often women of color, and young and rural women, who do not have the financial means to travel long distances in Texas or who may even risk getting unregulated medical abortions in Mexico. Though groups like the National Network of Abortion Funds have issued emergency appeals for funds, not enough assistance may arrive in time to help the many women and families thrown into crisis by this law.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry paternalistically heralded the bill as promoting women’s health. Though he claims to be “pro-life,” he hypocritically refuses to expand Medicaid coverage in Texas for the working poor as part of the Affordable Care Act. This will cause enormous harm to vast numbers of low-income women and their families.

On Nov. 1, a ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals stated that the provision in the ACA that employers provide free coverage for contraceptives in health care plans for their employees infringed on the individual religious freedoms of the employers, but that businesses do not have the right to challenge the provision on religious grounds.

With about 40 such challenges currently before the courts, the Nov. 2 New York Times noted, “The Supreme Court is expected to decide before Thanksgiving whether to review … cases about the mandate.”

Obviously, if progressives had won a single-payer system of national health care, this kind of issue would never have raised its ugly, racist, sexist, anti-poor head.

However the Supreme Court rules in both of these situations, one thing is clear. Those who support women’s right to reproductive justice — encompassing all those socioeconomic necessities of life that empower women — face huge challenges. Now is the time to unite and take to the streets as the women’s liberation movement did in the early 1970s. Only mass pressure will end the war on women’s reproductive rights once and for all.

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