It’s Getting Harder To Access An Abortion Clinic In America (And It’s Going To Keep Getting Worse)

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The new year has brought a rash of new reports surveying the current state of reproductive rights in the United States. The Guttmacher Institute tallied up the 70 abortion restrictions that states enacted in 2013. The Population Institute awarded the country a measly “C-” on several factors of women’s health. NARAL Pro-Choice America was an even harder grader, giving the U.S. a “D,” and mapping out the states where anti-choice politicians have maintained a tight grip on the legislature.

And now, the Center for Reproductive Rights — one of the organizations that works to litigate harsh anti-abortion laws enacted on a state level — has a report of its own, tracking the most serious attacks on abortion access over the past year. One of the biggest areas of concern is the increasing number of harsh restrictions on abortion providers, which are ultimately intended to force clinics to shut down.

Seven states passed new measures in 2013 in the hopes of shutting down clinics — including Texas, the largest state to impose these type of harsh restrictions, where the reproductive health landscape has already dramatically changed:

Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers in 2013

trap laws

CREDIT: Center for Reproductive Rights

The Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, is an anti-choice tactic that’s been able to successfully advance in states across the country because it’s framed in terms of patient safety. It may seem reasonable to pass laws to ensure that abortion clinics are up-to-code and abortion doctors have proper credentials. But in reality, these laws don’t do anything to make women safer. They simply require clinics to make unnecessary and expensive renovations — like installing water fountains and widening hallways — or send doctors on a quest for superfluous partnerships with hospitals that can be nearly impossible to get. Multiple studies have found that abortion clinics are already highly regulated and extremely safe, and the nation’s largest organization of OB-GYNs opposes TRAP laws.

Nonetheless, TRAP laws are gaining significant political momentum, and that’s especially concerning in places where clinics are already hard to come by. “There are four states with only one abortion provider. For those states, in particular, where access is most limited, TRAP regulations can serve as a backdoor ban on abortion,” the Center for Reproductive Right’s report notes. “And when clinics close, not only abortion care but other reproductive health care is lost.”

TRAP laws are now in place in the majority of states in the country, ensuring that women’s access to care continues to dwindle. In the center of the country — the region stretching from northern Texas through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and North Dakota — an estimated 400,000 women of reproductive age live at least 150 miles away from the closest clinic. And, thanks to the current political make-up of the federal circuit courts, that’s unlikely to get better anytime soon. The extremely conservative Fifth Circuit has upheld the stringent TRAP law in Texas despite the fact that it’s having a direct impact on women’s access to abortion.

And there’s another way that clinic access may be compromised even further this year, too. The Supreme Court is currently considering a case regarding buffer zones around abortion clinics, a policy that allows reproductive health facilities to enact a 35-foot zone where anti-choice protesters are not allowed to intimidate or harass women. If the justices strike down buffer zones on the grounds that they violate protesters’ free speech rights, that will allow abortion opponents to have full access to the individuals attempting to enter abortion clinics. The incidents of violence and intimidation that often occur outside of clinics have been well-documented over the past several decades, and some women say they’ve avoided entering a clinic because they’re afraid of being accosted by protesters.

The justices won’t hand down their decision until later this year, but there’s considerable reason to think that buffer zones aren’t safe for long. So, if the number of clinics continues to shrink, and the groups of protesters in close proximity to clinics continues to grow, women who need access to safe abortion services will pay the price. There’s some evidence that states are beginning to reach a tipping point on reproductive rights, and some may actually begin enacting proactive policies to roll back some of the recent attacks on abortion. But at least when it comes to clinics, it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.