Thursday, November 09, 2006

New Congress, Old Abortion Fight

We've got twenty additional advocates for reproductive rights in Congress as a result of the election. The South Dakota abortion ban was overturned by voters in that state. Oregon failed to pass an initiative that would have required parental consent for minors before obtaining an abortion.

These are all reasons to celebrate. To be sure, they are victories and I'd like to feel encouraged by them - at least for a few moments - before ruminating on the reproductive rights challenges we are still faced with each and every day.

One of those challenges comes in the form of a federal abortion ban (what pre-lifers have termed the "Partial Birth Abortion ban") currently being heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have written about the term "partial birth abortion" for in reference to its creation by pro-life advocates who strategically named a non-existent procedure for political purposes and then preceded to artfully frame the issue through this meaningless term.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing in once again on whether or not to overturn legislation passed by Congress in 2003 outlawing "partial birth abortion." And this time we've got Justices Alito and Roberts to contend with. Lawyers for the Bush administration faced off against legal advocates for reproductive freedom in front of the justices (Justice Clarence Thomas was out ill) and were grilled specifically about what the procedure entailed.

This is where, for me, it gets sticky (if I say "no pun intended" is that gross?). In reference to the specific procedure outlined in the law, Justice Roberts asked: "We have no evidence in the record as to how often this situation arises?" To which Priscilla Smith, arguing to strike down the federal ban, replied, "No, we don't your honor."

To which I say: if we are discussing a particular procedure, a D&X, that is done only in third trimester abortions and only when the woman's health or life is in danger and only, obviously, under a doctor's supervision and suggestion, then why are we questioning how often "this situation arises"? Why do we care? But, if we are discussing the law the way it is written then I say: we have no evidence as to how often "this situation" arises because the law does not refer to ONE situation but in fact can be interpreted as referring to both second and third trimester abortions.

This piece of legislation has been deceptive from the moment it was crafted. And during arguments in front of the SCOTUS over the last two days, the procedure to which the pro-life backers refer to as "partial birth abortion" but which in reality is a D&X, has been called gruesome and inhumane. Justice Ginsberg has repeatedly questioned the criteria for legislation against a particular procedure based solely on the fact that it is "gruesome" or "disgusting."

A D&X is a medical procedure that is undergone only at a doctor's discretion because it is the safest procedure available for the woman in question. It is undergone but only a few thousand women every year out of more than 1.25 million abortions (90% of abortions occur in the first trimester).

The federal law has been struck down six separate times by courts across the country because of its over-reaching impact on all abortions infringing on a woman's right to access abortion under Roe v. Wade. If history is any indication, this piece of legislation will finally take its resting place in the graveyard of U.S. law. In 2000, a similar piece of legislation in Nebraska was struck down for its lack of an exception for a woman's health.

This Supreme Court battle is not our only fight for reproductive freedom on the horizon. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1977 prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortions, has been squeezing out low-income women from their constitutional right to access abortion for thirty years and has recently been thrown into the ring again by a coalition of reproductive rights and health organizations and advocates.

The "Hyde - 30 Years is Enough" campaign started by NNAF (the National Network of Abortion Funds) highlights the need for overturning this amendment enacted not long after Roe v. Wade was decided. In particular, this campaign calls for culturally competent family planning services and abortion access for low-income women.

32 states ban state Medicaid to pay for abortion. They are legally obligated to provide coverage in the cases of life endangerment, rape and incest but more often than not fail to do so. One state provides coverage only in cases of life endangerment and 17 states provide state Medicaid coverage for poor women in almost all cases; proudly Washington state is one of those states.

This is an issue that the mainstream pro-choice movement has swept under the rug for a long time because of who the law affects - poor women seeking abortions. But the time is now to use this amendment as a springboard for addressing the inherent cultural, socio-economic and racist biases inherent in the reproductive freedom movement. If we cannot ensure that low-income women are able to access their constitution right to safe abortion care, then legal abortion is not a reality for a large percentage of the women in this country.

More later on the Hyde Amendment. For now, let's unify around these crucial reproductive freedom issues, ride this wave of victory and strategize about how we can use our new congress for bigger and better things!

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