06.21.134:45 AM ET

The New Abortion Battleground

The House’s abortion bill is incendiary—but the GOP is really winning the war against women’s rights at the state level, says Amanda Marcotte.

Rep. Trent Franks’ doomed attempt to ban abortions after 20 weeks nationwide has understandably received a lot of attention, and not just because it’s a continuation of the war on women Republicans claim they aren’t waging. Republicans who have a national platform to wax poetic about why women don’t deserve reproductive rights invariably generate jaw-dropping quotes, and this bout was no exception, from Franks minimizing the experience of rape victims who get pregnant to Rep. Mike Burgess holding forth on the supposed masturbation habits of fetuses. But while this bill is important symbolically and politically—even though it won’t get past the Senate—it’s important not to let it distract from where the real action is on the war on women, at the state level.

After all, just because Republicans took a beating in the media and at the polls in 2012 for their attacks on women’s rights doesn’t mean they’ve given up. On the contrary, state-level moves to restrict abortion access have intensified to the point where it’s arguable that ending safe abortion access—in as many places as possible—has become the main priority of the GOP.

Showy legislation like the ban on abortions after six weeks in North Dakota may be the most shocking, but stuff like that tends to get shot down in the courts as an obvious violation of Roe v. Wade. As always, the real threat comes from the multidecade strategy of chipping away at abortion access with a thousand pointless regulations, a strategy that anti-choicers adapted from the Jim Crow laws of old, and one that runs a real danger of making access to legal abortion nearly impossible for wide swaths of American women.

Despite things getting testy during the vote, Wisconsin Republicans managed to push through a bill that not only requires women to sit through a mandatory ultrasound on top of the scripted lecture they already have to endure, but also requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital to operate. This admitting-privileges regulation is trendy right now in anti-choice legislation, mainly because the right can often then rely on anti-choice protesters to threaten and bully local hospitals until they’re too afraid to offer abortions. (The willingness of politicians to lean on anti-choice thugs using threatening tactics is just one of the many deeply unpleasant developments of the anti-choice movement.) Hospital-admitting privileges are distinctly unnecessary for doctors who provide ordinary outpatient abortions, on the level of requiring dentists to have them in case they want to prescribe an overnight stay for cavity drilling. As usual, it’s just another burden designed to reduce access while pretending to be about upholding standards of care—standards of care, mind you, for women that anti-choicers otherwise accuse of murder for getting abortions.

This supposed concern for women’s standard of care, by the way, doesn’t apply whatsoever to anyone providing the mandatory ultrasound. The law doesn’t require any kind of certification, and was clearly written with the hope that desperate, poor women will turn to anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centers” that offer a side dish of bullying and shaming with that free ultrasound. Since these volunteer-run centers rarely have real medical staff, that loophole will help keep them in business. These expense-escalating laws will put even more of a strain on Planned Parenthood, which has already had to close four clinics in Wisconsin. Most of the women who go to these clinics are there for check-ups and contraception. Not that Wisconsin Republicans care about those services, which reduce the abortion rate. After all, they are also trying to pass a law that would let employers block their employees from using contraception benefits they already earned. The war is not just on abortion, but all attempts by women to control their own fertility.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry knows a little something about trying to separate women from their contraception, as he’s been waging a war for months now trying to end funding that helps meet women’s contraception needs in his state. He takes his assault on women’s rights so seriously, in fact, that he called a special session of the legislature for the dual purpose of trying to disenfranchise minority voters and beat up on women’s rights some more. During this session, Republicans are offering up a massive omnibus bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks, forces women to be in the presence of their doctors to swallow an abortion pill, and of course, requires doctors to have hospital-admitting privileges.

The bill also requires that abortion clinics meet state standards for ambulatory surgical centers, even though abortion remains the same simple five-minute procedure in an office, or pill swallowing at home, that it always was. Andrea Grimes of RH Reality Check estimates that this utterly unnecessary regulation will reduce the number of legal abortion clinics in the entire state of Texas to five.

In Virginia, the strategy of using medically unnecessary regulations to bully clinics out of existence is in full swing, after state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli threatened the state board of health to approve his favored anti-abortion regulations or he would refuse to let his office support them legally as he’s supposed to do. The new regulations retroactively defined abortion clinics as hospitals, a move which is expected to close most or perhaps all of them. At least one clinic folded, and another, Falls Church Healthcare Center, is suing and accused Cuccinelli of, among other things, playing dirty with the state health board.

Ohio is following in Texas’s footsteps, trying to shove through a massive omnibus bill that increases the misery for women seeking abortions and the hassle for doctors trying to help them in various ways. The bill would increase the waiting period to 48 hours, which means more travel and hotel expenses for women who have to travel for abortions. It also has a mandatory ultrasound bill, because anti-choicers literally love nothing more than laws forcing women to strip and be probed more than medically necessary. Naturally, there’s the mandatory shaming doctors are supposed to give out, mainly by being forced to describe in detail any features the embryo might have.

Most bizarrely, the bill requires doctors to tell patients how much money their clinic makes off abortion. This part of the bill is the result of an ongoing effort by anti-choicers to pretend that abortion rights are just about money, a myth that assumes patients don’t really want abortions and are probably being lured by greedy doctors. Of course, part of the problem with this myth is the country’s biggest abortion provider is a nonprofit, Planned Parenthood, and they provide those abortion-preventing contraception services that Republicans are so desperate to attack. If doctors really were just in the abortion business for the money, they would be the first in line to vote Republican, hoping that the attacks on contraception meant more money for them. In reality, most abortion providers do the opposite and try to counsel women seeking abortion on better contraception usage.

For whatever reason, stomping out the ability to get a safe, legal abortion for huge numbers of American women has become a priority, possibly the priority, of the Republican Party in recent years, and the efforts to achieve that goal are only intensifying. National efforts may take up a lion’s share of media attention, but unfortunately, at the state level is where Republicans are truly finding success.