Forget About The Halls Of Congress — The Fight For Abortion Rights Is Coming To Your Backyard

CREDIT: Cleveland Plain Dealer


CREDIT: Cleveland Plain Dealer

Abortion opponents haven’t had much success enacting sweeping national policies to restrict reproductive rights. Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. The 20-week abortion ban that recently passed the House is dead on arrival in the Senate. The FDA just made emergency contraception available to all women over the counter, despite protests from outraged conservatives. The health reform law represents an unprecedented expansion of women’s access to affordable birth control.

But that doesn’t mean reproductive rights are safe. In fact, 2013 is shaping up to be one of the worst years for reproductive freedom since abortion was first legalized. OB-GYNs are warning that they never expected it to get quite this bad while Roe was still in place. Abortion clinics are closing at a record pace, and low-income women are losing their access to the health care they need.

That’s because the fight for abortion access is having significant success on a more local level. Obviously, it’s easier to push anti-abortion measures through state legislatures than it is to get them approved by the U.S. Congress, so abortion opponents have focused their attention there. A handful of powerful players in the anti-choice community have worked on writing draft legislation that they can shop around to different state lawmakers, encouraging different states to enact the same exact type of abortion bans. They’ve helped states stack their supposedly nonpartisan medical boards full of far-right social conservatives. And they have lobbied lawmakers to propose increasingly more stringent abortion bans to test the limits of Roe v. Wade.

It’s working. Over the past three years, states have enacted record-breaking numbers of abortion restrictions that have severely changed the reproductive rights landscape across the country.

But now, the fight is becoming even more localized. The anti-abortion community is moving from state-level restrictions to city-level threats to abortion access. Reproductive rights advocates have pointed out that the patchwork of state laws restricting abortion access means that women’s ability to get health now varies incredibly widely by zip code. Soon, that may ring more true than it ever has before.

This week, abortion foes in Albuquerque collected enough signatures to put a 20-week abortion ban on the next ballot. If voters approve it, Albuquerque may become the first city in the country to enact its own local ban on the procedure. The anti-choice community has been pushing for the citywide restriction — which has been enacted at a state level in places like Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, and, most recently, Texas — for the past several months, but they haven’t been able to get it moving in the legislature. So they pushed to bring it directly to the voters in New Mexico’s largest city.

The local push is being driven by Operation Rescue, a militant anti-choice group that’s based out of Kansas. Operation Rescue’s senior policy adviser, Cheryl Sullenger, told Bloomberg News that the group will likely expand this type of city-level strategy if it ends up being effective in Albuquerque. “We will take it to the local level if that is what we need to do,” Sullenger said. “Let’s zone them out. Let’s take any opportunity available to us.”

So far, that’s exactly what the anti-abortion community has started to do. If state laws can’t effectively shut down abortion clinics — many of the laws designed to do this have ended up getting blocked in court — groups like Operation Rescue turn to zoning fights. In Operation Rescue’s home city of Wichita, where women’s health advocates recently re-opened an abortion clinic in the same building that used to house slain Dr. George Tiller’s old practice, anti-choice groups have repeatedly asked city officials to rezone the area so that the clinic can’t operate anymore. They claim that abortion clinics are too “disruptive” to be located in residential neighborhoods — even though, ironically, the anti-choice protests in front of the clinic are the real source of any potential disruption.

Wichita’s abortion clinic is still hanging on, but other clinics subject to local zoning disputes aren’t always so lucky. In Fairfax, VA, one of the state’s busiest clinics was recently force to close its doors after the city rejected its application to move to a different building. Zoning officials in the city said that its parking lot was too small. Just earlier this summer, the city council adopted stricter — and wholly unnecessary — standards for abortion clinics that are typically seen on the state level.

Tarina Keene, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told Bloomberg News that she expects abortion opponents to continue to pursue an increasingly local approach. “This is definitely a new tactic that the anti-choice side of this debate is taking,” she noted. “You can target where these facilities are located at the county, city or town level.”

Especially in states where only one abortion clinic is left, anti-choice groups can focus their efforts specifically on the clinic rather than needing to lobby for a state-wide law. That dynamic is currently unfolding in Mississippi, where a judge has temporarily blocked a stringent state law that would have forced the state’s last abortion clinic to close. Abortion opponents are now circumventing that legal battle and going directly to the state’s health department, demanding an investigation into the clinic in the hopes of blocking it from operating.

At least when it comes to targeted clinic restrictions, there’s one way to help prevent abortion opponents from successfully continuing their local strategy. Lats month, a group of 100 reproductive health experts published a joint letter in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology advocating for more hospitals to perform abortions. Why? Because when abortion is integrated into the rest of the medical care that women can receive at hospitals across the country, it’s harder to make it into a target — and harder to chip away at women’s access to reproductive care, one clinic and one city and one state at a time.