Bolstered by significant GOP gains in the 2014 midterm elections, states are forging ahead with attempts to further restrict their residents’ access to abortion. One of the primary tactics that’s emerging: Onerous waiting periods that are designed to make it more difficult for women to get to an abortion clinic, forcing them to make multiple trips in order to move forward with the procedure.
Abortion waiting periods — which require women to first receive state-mandated counseling about abortion, and then wait a set amount of time before they’re allowed to have their procedure — are already widespread. Twenty-six states currently stipulate that patients must wait a certain amount of time, usually 24 hours, before they can get an abortion.
But GOP-controlled legislatures have recently been moving to make these policies even more stringent. Lawmakers have been experimenting in this area for the past several years, and the trend has picked up steam this session.
In 2011, South Dakota became the first state in the country to pass a law requiring women to wait a full 72 hours before accessing abortion services; Utah soon followed suit. Not to be outdone, South Dakota went even further in 2013, extending its waiting period by excluding weekends and holidays from the official 72-hour period. Last year, Missouri approved its own three-day waiting period.
Observers predicted that the 2015 legislative session would bring additional proposed 72-hour waiting periods — particularly in states that already have 24-hour waits on the books. Indeed, for lawmakers in states that have heavily regulated abortion, it may seem like the natural progression. Elizabeth Nash, the senior states issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, told ThinkProgress last December that, in the aftermath of the dizzying number of abortion restrictions that have recently been enacted in red states, “the next step is to see how to make them more burdensome.”
“I don’t like to be right,” Nash, whose organization is supportive of reproductive rights, told ThinkProgress this month. But it appears that she was: Iowa, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma all proposed 72-hour abortion waiting periods this session. Only slightly less restrictive 48-hour waiting periods have recently advanced in Tennessee and been approved in Arkansas.
An extended waiting period has the best chance of becoming law in Tennessee, where it’s already been approved by the legislature and is simply awaiting a signature from the governor. Lawmakers in North Carolina and Oklahoma also appear to be eager to lengthen their waits, and are quickly moving the proposed 72-hour waiting period bills through committees. North Carolina’s bill is on “the fast track,” according to North Carolina Health News, and advanced in the House on Thursday after less than 24 hours of debate.
Even in the other states that are pursuing more standard day-long versions of the waiting period requirement — like Florida, where the House just passed a 24-hour wait — patients would still need to make two trips to an abortion clinic, which reproductive rights advocates say places an untenable burden on low-income women who may not have the resources to take off work or arrange transportation.
When that period is lengthened to two or three days, the potential obstacles only increase. As Robin Marty pointed out in Talking Points Memo at the beginning of the session, these proposed waiting periods threaten to create large swaths of the country where women have no good options. They’re popping up in regions where harsh regulations on abortion clinics have already limited the number of providers available, where patients are already struggling to make the trip to see the closest abortion doctor, and where there are already long waits to make an appointment at the few overbooked clinics that remain standing.
“As these laws begin to stack, abortion opponents are drawing together contiguous states, creating deserts where pregnant people will no longer be able to travel far enough to seek out single-day care,” Marty noted.
The legislators who support abortion waiting periods typically say the policy is necessary because it gives women more time to think seriously about whether they really want to end their pregnancy, ensuring they don’t rush into a decision that they end up regretting. But research into the subject has found that this policy is an ineffective attempt at accomplishing its stated goal.
Abortion patients typically aren’t struggling to make up their minds. Nearly 90 percent of women are “highly confident” about their decision to end a pregnancy when they first seek out a clinic, and laws that buy them more time by requiring them to sit through counseling sessions or wait out a 24-hour period don’t change that. There aren’t large groups of women who have had abortions clamoring for policies to prevent other people from rushing into the same decision. Studies have confirmed that even though abortions can certainly inspire mixed emotions, women do not regret their procedures and say that it was the right choice for them.
“Women are more than capable of making thoughtful decisions about their health, pregnancies, and families, and the last thing they need is interference from politicians who presume they know better,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement this week.
Thanks to the dozens of state laws aimed at making it more difficult to get an abortion, pregnant people are certainly not lacking in time to think about their decision. Unlike many other parts of the world, ending a pregnancy is no easy feat in the United States. American women are delaying abortion longer than they would prefer. One study, which focused on more than 4,000 women who were denied abortions in 2008 because they were past the gestational limit, found that those women wanted to end their pregnancies sooner — but legislative and financial hurdles simply proved insurmountable.