Two score and nearly three years ago, the highest court in the land ruled that women have the right to terminate their pregnancies. Although abortion is always a polarizing talking point in elections, many believe that its supporters have been lulled into a false sense of security by several decades of reproductive freedom when, in reality, those freedoms are facing some of the most serious threats in decades.
Gallup reports that four out of five Americans believe that abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, but public outrage over ongoing efforts to restrict access has been weak at best.
“A lot of women, especially, are taking it for granted. They were born in the ’70s; they grew up with it. Birth control has always been available, abortion has always been available,” says Terry Sanders, president of Florida National Organization for Women.
It doesn’t help that pro-choice advocates have been less effective than their opponents at mobilizing supporters and framing the conversation. Abortion is quite a common procedure, but it’s still taboo to talk about it publicly — despite the fact that Planned Parenthood reports one in three women will obtain an abortion in their lifetime.
A recent campaign on social media, #ShoutYourAbortion, has encouraged women to tell the stories of their abortions in an effort to reduce the perceived social stigma.
“We need to start telling our abortion stories, making people understand normal, everyday women that you know have had abortions; they’re not terrible, they’re not mean, they’re not baby-killers, many of them have other children,” says Sanders. “… I’ve had an abortion. I have no regrets. It was early; it was a medical procedure to me.”
Here in the Sunshine State, the threat to reproductive freedom is veritable; in recent years, the Republican-controlled legislature has passed several laws that restrict a woman’s access to abortion. Last year, Governor Rick Scott signed legislation that required a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could obtain an abortion. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-District 31, said the waiting period “would ‘empower’ women by giving them more time to reflect before making such momentous decisions.”
Laura Goodhue, Planned Parenthood vice president of public policy for South Florida and the Treasure Coast, disagrees. “Women have a deeply personal decision that is individual to every woman and we feel that once a woman has come to that decision in her life, she doesn’t need politicians telling her she has to wait another 24 hours … We feel that this is an intrusion of politicians into the doctor/patient relationship,” Goodhue says.
At nearly the 11th hour, just a day before the legislation went into effect, it was blocked by the courts for violating Florida’s right to privacy under the state constitution. Undeterred, legislators continue to wage a war of attrition on reproductive freedom; there are already six bills concerning abortion before the Florida legislature for the 2016 session.
Nationally — and locally — access to abortion is more limited than it has been in four decades and there is no sign of that trend abating.
In May, Gallup reported that “[s]tate lawmakers have passed more than 200 regulations on abortion since 2010,
after Republicans gained control of many state legislatures.”
Northeast Florida is represented by some particularly adamant anti-abortionists. Every year since 2010, local Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-District 19, has proposed the Florida for Life Act, which would outlaw abortion in all cases except those in which the mother is at risk of death or serious, permanent bodily injury. And this act does not provide any exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
Van Zant’s effort to magically overturn U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence through state legislation may be more of an annual symbolic show of opposition than a serious piece of legislation, but he is just one voice in what some feel is a rising tide of politicians committed to diminishing, and possibly eliminating, reproductive freedom.
In 2014, Florida passed a bill sponsored by local Rep. Janet Adkins, R-District 11, (co-sponsors include Van Zant and Rep. Travis Cummings, R-District 18) which outlaws third trimester abortions unless a physician certifies in writing that “the termination of the pregnancy is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.”
Also in 2014, Florida lawmakers passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which created criminal penalties for crimes against a woman that cause the death of her unborn child. The law was opposed by Democrats, likely because it does not differentiate between acts causing the death of a fetus at even the earliest stages of development, and does not include any requirement of intent or knowledge of the pregnancy to trigger criminal penalties.
Under the law, it is possible for an individual who intentionally assaults a woman who is in the very earliest stages of pregnancy — even if no one, not the perpetrator nor even the woman herself, is aware of the pregnancy — causing her to miscarry, to be charged with capital murder, and possibly executed, for causing the fetus’ death, even if the woman herself suffers no physical harm aside from the miscarriage.
This is a direct departure from common law principles that required a fetus to draw breath outside the womb to trigger penalties for harming it. (Also under common law, abortion was legal prior to the time of “quickening,” which is characterized by a fetus’ first movements in the womb.)
There are two pieces of legislation up for consideration by the Florida Legislature in 2016 that closely mirror the Texas law that has been widely reported to have led to the shuttering of more than half of that state’s abortion providers.
One of these laws, which was co-sponsored by Van Zant and local Rep. Jay Fant, R-District 15, would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their office; the other would require clinics where abortions are performed to adhere to the same standards as those who perform ambulatory surgical procedures.
Planned Parenthood estimates that this legislation would lead to the closing of half of Florida’s 65 abortion providers. Goodhue says that they believe the intent of the law is to close clinics, not protect women’s health.
Last year, the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists filed an amici curiae brief opposing those Texas laws, stating, “[T]here is simply no medical basis for requiring that abortion facilities meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centers (“ASC requirement”) or for enforcing a local admitting privileges requirement against abortion providers (“privileges requirement”). [This law] does not serve the health of women in Texas but instead jeopardizes women’s health by restricting access to abortion providers.”
Goodhue noted that it does not serve any legitimate public safety purpose to require clinics to adhere to ambulatory surgical center standards, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, for abortion providers to get admitting privileges to hospitals, because of the relative rarity of complications as evidenced by extremely low rates of hospital admissions following abortion. “Abortion is a safe and legal procedure and admitting is less than 1 percent,” she says.
In the four decades since Roe v. Wade, the controversial Supreme Court case
that legalized abortion, opposition to abortion has been characterized by highly charged rhetoric, legislation and legal challenges designed to restrict it, and acts of violence against abortion providers and support personnel.
On Nov. 27, a lone gunman took the lives of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was the first such killing since physician and abortion provider George Tiller was gunned down in Wichita, Kansas in 2009. For many, the killings in Colorado underscored tensions that have been escalating since last summer’s release of the now-discredited, highly doctored video that purportedly showed Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
The killings were widely condemned by advocates on both sides of the debate, but some believe that abortion’s opponents deserve part of the blame for escalating emotions by making misleading and, in some cases, inaccurate statements about abortion providers, procedures and advocates.
As Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards told CNN on AC360 last week, “It is really disturbing to see the kind of hateful rhetoric about Planned Parenthood, about the women who come to us, about the doctors who provide health care. It’s very hard to see these kinds of violent incidents that I think sometimes this rhetoric fuels.”
Harsh rhetoric, an onslaught of legislation that restricts access and lackluster backlash from reproductive rights supporters have led some to conclude that reproductive freedom is more at risk than it has been in recent history.
“From day one, abortion has been a huge battle, a continued battle since Roe v. Wade,” says Sanders.
Gallup reported in May that 21 percent of Americans say that they will vote only for candidates who share their personal views on abortion, the highest percentage in the organization’s 19 years of polling this issue. Among registered voters, that percentage is somewhat lower, at 19 percent, but “even among registered voters, the importance of abortion is higher than Gallup has found most years.”
Yet advocates and voters have been slow to publicly hold accountable those politicians who restrict reproductive freedom.
“The biggest and most important thing that they can do is look at who they’re voting for and make it a higher priority … in Florida, it’s very difficult to find pro-choice Republicans,” Sanders says.