By this point, it’s become clear that the United States is in the midst of a massive assault on reproductive rights. State lawmakers have enacted more than 200 different abortion restrictions over the past four years, and dozens of abortion clinics have been forced out of business, leaving women with fewer options than at any point in the past two decades. The most recent midterm elections ushered in a new wave of GOP politicians who are already preparing harsh new laws for the 2015 session.
Nonetheless, leading reproductive health groups are finding reason for optimism.
Despite the current legislative trend focused on restricting Americans’ reproductive options, experts have also observed the beginning of an encouraging shift in this area that has flown largely under the radar. Last year, legislators in nearly two-thirds of states across the country started looking for ways to protect, rather than attack, access to sexual and reproductive health care.
According to a new report released this week by the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH), abortion rights advocates advanced more proactive policies in 2014 than in any session in the past several decades.
More than 70 bills — including measures seeking to expand access to birth control and abortion, measures expanding insurance coverage for a reproductive health care, measures to make it easier for patients to get to abortion clinics, and sweeping packages of pro-woman legislation to advance gender equality — were introduced in 32 states. More than 30 of those bills were signed into law; even in the states where they weren’t approved, the proposed laws allowed politicians to go on record as supportive of reproductive rights. NIRH’s report refers to the push toward this proactive legislation as a “growing state movement.”
“Although there is much more to be done, it is clear that when advocates and lawmakers work together to put their political and organizing energy behind proactive, pro-choice legislation, change can happen in the states,” the report concludes.
The Center for Reproductive Rights released a similar report this week chronicling the emerging pro-choice activism evident in the 113th Congress. “To be clear: opponents of reproductive freedom were as relentless as ever in their efforts to wage war against women’s reproductive rights,” that report begins. “But this time they had to contend with cold new countermoves, from proactive and visionary legislative proposals to innovative new advocacy campaigns.”
For instance, for the first time in nearly a decade, members of Congress introduced a piece of pro-choice legislation on the national level. The Women’s Health Protection Act, spearheaded by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), is designed to counter the wave of state-level abortion restrictions that aren’t based on medicine or science. There have also been renewed efforts to restore insurance coverage for abortion services, which has recently advanced the rights of military service members and Peace Corps volunteers who become pregnant from rape.
This shift wasn’t an accident; rather, it was a carefully charted strategy among reproductive rights groups who have grown tired of playing defense to unrelenting waves of anti-choice legislation. At the beginning of 2014, Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told ThinkProgress that “the momentum has shifted.”
“Americans as a whole have had enough. We’re not just going to sit idly by and fight defensive fights and take these attacks on reproductive freedom sitting down,” Hogue said almost exactly a year ago. “We’re starting to define what a new agenda for reproductive freedom looks like in the 21st century.”
The work in this area appears poised to continue. The Center for Reproductive Rights has developed a policy guide for lawmakers and advocates who want to help “turn the tide by pushing forward a new agenda in our state legislatures.” The document lays out a road map for pushing for full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, protecting the health law’s birth control benefit, supporting family planning services, giving young Americans the resources to make healthy sexual decisions, strengthening the rights of pregnant women, and maintaining access to legal abortion.
“The consensus across the country is that anti-choice activists and legislators have simply gone too far and, as our report documents, there is both the determination — and the popular demand — for state legislatures to protect reproductive rights and ensure access to reproductive health care,” Andrea Miller, the president of NIRH, said in a statement this week.