Two polar opposite events affecting women’s right to choose abortion took place on Nov. 19.
One was a 5 to 4 Supreme Court ruling that upheld implementation of a Texas law, which has the potential to profoundly affect millions of women and their families because it closed about a third of the 36 women’s health clinics in the state.
In the other, voters in Albuquerque, N.M., the largest city in that state with some 555,000 people, turned down a city ban, 55 percent to 45 percent, that would have prohibited abortions after 20 weeks.
In the first case, five male justices used their power to deny private health care and personal choice to millions of women. In the other, thousands of voters publicly affirmed women’s right to make their own decisions about their lives.
Such a dichotomy reveals how glaringly undemocratic the U.S. legal system is and why the U.S. medical delivery system should not be a political pawn.
The Texas law, which mandates that physicians doing abortions in the state must have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals, is not based on medical necessity. On Oct. 28, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it serves no medical purpose and infringes on women’s reproductive rights. However, that was quickly overturned by three judges in the Fifth Circuit Court. A case appealing the law, where its constitutional merits will be decided, will come before that court in January.
Conservative Supreme Court justices show anti-poor bias
The Nov. 21 New York Times noted: “The [Supreme Court] justices should have blocked the law as the appeal proceeds. The court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey forbids state regulations that have ‘the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus’ — a principle this provision clearly violates.”
However, this is not the first time that this Supreme Court has split 5 to 4 on reactionary rulings. Though the court is inherently undemocratic because justices are appointed for life by the president and are not subject to election or mandatory retirement, the court became even more conservative – openly pro-big business and anti-working and -poor people — after President George W. Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006.
Take the Citizen United decision in 2010 that ruled corporations have the same rights as people. Or the two cases decided 5 to 4 last spring that attacked Title VII and dismissed long-standing employment law that will make it harder for workers to protect themselves from sex and race discrimination. Even though Chief Justice Roberts split from the others to vote for the Affordable Care Act in 2012, that was effectively eviscerated when states were allowed to opt out of expanding Medicaid, as 25 of them have as of Nov. 21, denying millions of workers and the oppressed access to affordable health care.
As Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the four justices who dissented on the Nov. 19 ruling, noted, “The longer a given [women’s health care] facility remains closed, the less likely it is ever to reopen even if the admitting privileges requirement is ultimately held unconstitutional.”
Dr. Lester Minto, who owns and runs a women’s health care clinic in Texas, told Slate Magazine on Nov. 20: “If [women] have a passport and enough money, they go over the border to Mexico and … buy misoprostol at a pharmacy. It is an ulcer drug, but it works as an abortifacient. … Of course if you are undocumented this isn’t an option at all.”
If women can’t afford a passport, Dr. Minto said women are able to buy the drug at a flea market. “This is bad and sad and wrong. … You don’t even know if you are getting the real thing. … Women are forced to [furtively] crawl around. …. So I am here to help them.” He explained that once a woman begins to bleed vaginally, Texas law allows him to do “miscarriage management.” He couldn’t get admitting privileges at his local hospital because it is “religiously affiliated.”
Discriminatory Texas law makes abortion a privilege, not a right
The Texas law has created a blatantly discriminatory system of reproductive health care based on class. The rich, who are disproportionately white, can afford to travel to Mexico for pills or anywhere in Texas for abortions, while poor and working women, who are more often women of color, young and rural, have to sneak around if they are lucky enough to find a compassionate doctor to advise them.
Choosing to have a safe, legal abortion is now a privilege in Texas, rather than a right, which violates the Constitution and the very premise of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973.
In contrast, due to a hard-fought campaign by pro-choice activists in the Respect ABQ Women coalition, voters in Albuquerque ensured that the right to abortion prevails for all women. In fact every time the right to abortion has been put to a vote — twice in Colorado and South Dakota and once in Mississippi — it has been upheld by a significant margin.
“Today’s election makes it crystal-clear that Albuquerque voters understand that the complex, extremely personal decision about abortion needs to remain between a woman and her doctor,” said Micaela Cadena with the Respect ABQ Women campaign. “Albuquerque families sent a powerful message today — they do not want the government interfering in their private medical decisions. Dangerous, unconstitutional laws like the one we rejected today have no place in Albuquerque, no place in New Mexico, no place anywhere in our nation.” (RABQW press release reprinted by Truthout, Nov. 22)
It’s independent mass organizing in the streets that will ultimately push back the right-wing’s attacks in the courts or the legislatures.