The Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing July 15 about the Women’s Health Protection Act. The law is needed to stop states from implementing laws claiming to protect women’s health and safety, but which limit access to legal, safe abortion and drive women’s health care providers out of business.
This is the first federal legislation affirming women’s right to choose abortion since it became legal in 1973. It’s necessary now, as never before, to nullify and stop the avalanche of approximately 250 anti-abortion bills that have been passed by 40 states in recent years.
Bills affected by the law include regulations curtailing medical abortions, mandating invasive vaginal probes, limiting the number of weeks of pregnancy when an abortion can be performed, assigning personhood rights to the fetus, setting up strict structural dimensions of clinics and requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
All such laws are medically unnecessary and exceed regulations for medical practices with comparable risks. Pro-choice activists have noted that such laws, called “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” promote politicians’ careers, not sound medicine — and they curtail women’s rights.
Both sides of the issue — five for it, four against it, with one African-American practicing obstetrician-gynecologist for each side — were invited to speak to the bill. The testimony revealed a chasm as deep as the Grand Canyon between the two sides.
But it was refreshing to hear both points of view aired respectfully at the same time in the same room rather than the usual scene in Congress and state legislatures. There, the Republicans’ self-righteous contempt for abortion and the women who have them has prevailed, despite some Democratic women legislators bravely defending their and their constituents’ need for legal, safe abortions, as well as access to comprehensive health services that clinics provide.
The speakers opposing abortion reported statistics, as though they were established facts, about how women’s lives are ruined by abortions. Though they cited high rates of breast cancer, depression and suicide without noting their sources, all such statistics have been ruled hoaxes by the Guttmacher Institute and the Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, strongly spoke in defense of the WHPA, while Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, spoke against it. The divide between the two sides was as far apart as ports on either side of the Atlantic.
What upped the ante was when senators on the Judiciary Committee grilled the speakers. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider in Alabama and Mississippi, why the hospital near the only remaining clinic in Mississippi had refused to grant him admitting privileges. Dr. Parker said the hospital didn’t give him a reason, though he has never had to refer a patient to a hospital.
Then Cruz asked Dr. Monique Chireau, who practices at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., and who is a board member of Americans United for Life, to state why laws mandating hospital admitting privileges were necessary. For patient aftercare, she responded, failing to mention that it’s rarely if ever needed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) pontificated that such a federal law was a direct attack on states’ rights and should be opposed on that ground if no other. Hatch supported the notorious 1977 amendment eliminating Medicaid coverage for abortions for poor women, most often women of color, youth, immigrants, lesbians, transpeople and those living in rural areas.
One right-wing media analyst called the hearing “political theater,” pandering to the women’s vote in November. (morningcall.org, July 16) And RH Reality Check pointed out on July 16 the many errors in the right’s testimony.
The hearing, if viewed as a debate, was essentially a draw. Of course the law doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passage given the present Congress. But politically, it was vital to have all the pro-women, pro-choice issues aired publicly, after the right’s demonization of the issues in Congress and the state legislatures.
What’s needed is for all progressive forces to call a national demonstration in Washington, D.C. — and in state capitals far removed from D.C. — to affirm in the streets the right of all women to control their own lives and take care of their families.. That includes access to free contraceptives mandated by the Affordable Care Act and all government services, a living wage and union representation for all workers.
The right wing is emboldened by the economic crisis, which has benefited the 1% while imposing austerity on the rest of us. Opposing women’s rights is another part of the ruling class’s divide-and-conquer strategy, along with racism and bigotry against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual, transgender and queer people. Only a wide-ranging, united fightback, like the Civil Rights Movement, can win the rights that all working and oppressed peoples deserve and must have.
Sue Davis, a longtime reproductive justice activist, is the author of the pro-choice novel “Love Means Second Chances.”