2013 was a bad year for the Republican Party, women-wise. Between the resurfacing of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s astonishment that God hasn’t stepped in from stopping abortion in America from running “as far and foully as it has”, they rounded off the year looking like it’s possible they might have an image problem.
Coverage has died down in the British press, so you could be forgiven for thinking that things have gone a little quiet on the War on Women front.
But rest assured the WoW’s champions are still going strong, and if you haven’t been watching closely you may have missed a Virginia senator referring to a pregnant woman as a ‘host’, or the several disturbingly restrictive abortion laws passed in GOP strongholds across the US.
Last month a federal judge struck down the nation’s first “foetal heartbeat” ban on abortion after 12 weeks in Arkansas as unconstitutional, while legal proceedings are still ongoing after a federal judge blocked the passage of a law imposing a six week ban in North Dakota last summer.
Still, the anti-choice lobby is nothing if not tenacious, and last Thursday the Oklahoma Senate passed a bill to add new restrictions on abortion procedures that they say will protect women’s health.
As well as a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, one of the key stipulations of senate bill 1848 is that doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic “to facilitate the transfer of emergency cases if hospitalization of an abortion patient or a child born alive is necessary”.
The Republican lawmaker who wrote the bill, Mike Ritze, justifies it with the reasonable-sounding explanation that “if the federal law is going to allow abortions, the state has a responsibility to our citizens to ensure those procedures are done as safely as possible”.
At first glance it seems fair to assume that Ritze, who is, after all, a physician, would want to make sure that women who suffer complications can receive treatment.
Yet the provision begins to sound less reasonable once you realise that it’s completely unnecessary – an argument that fell on deaf ears when it was put forward by the Texas Hospital Association, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
The AMA and the ACOG filed an amicus brief in December arguing that legislative enactments like the 30-mile admitting privileges requirement “do nothing for the health of women and are incongruous with modern medical practice”.
“In contemporary medical practice it is not only accepted, but expected, that a woman experiencing a rare complication from an abortion – or any other medical procedure – will receive care for that complication from a nearby hospital,” it read.
But Ritze doesn’t need to be told this – he is, after all, a physician. With the medical argument thoroughly debunked, the bill seems to be less about ‘women’s protection’ and more about restricting access to safe, legal abortion.
Oklahoma’s population of less than four million is spread over an area three quarters the size of the UK, and finding a physician authorised to admit patients to a hospital within a 30-mile radius will be no small feat in rural areas with limited access to medical care.
The result: abortion clinics will be forced to close. This isn’t an unfounded assertion; we know that this will happen, because a similar law has already taken effect in a neighbouring state with devastating efficacy.
The bill’s privileges criteria mirrors almost exactly that of the controversial abortion bill so famously filibustered by Senator Wendy Davis. Last month the state’s last two rural abortion clinics in Texas closed down after weeks of – ultimately failed – negotiations.
No; the assumption that the bill might actually protect women comes without the knowledge that Grand Old Party has always had an odd way of defining ‘protection’ when it comes to women’s reproductive health.
And that’s what bites the most – that the continuing push to restrict women’s reproductive freedom is done under the guise of protecting women. This despite the fact that the bulk of evidence shows that when laws heavily restrict abortion, the number of abortions doesn’t go down. The number of women dying goes up.
Bill 1848 will face a final reading and vote before it can pass into law; but with both houses having passed the bill with an overwhelming majority, its smooth passage into law seems inevitable.
We can only hope that it will be obstructed by a legal challenge, as in North Dakota and Arkansas. Even Texas might provide some hope, as campaigners have brought a second legal challenge despite one attempt failing. The war rages on.