WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday assailed a sharp rise in state-level efforts to restrict access to abortion and other reproductive health care services.
“Across the country, extreme forces in some state governments are taking draconian steps to violate women’s rights,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the acting chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said at a hearing. These restrictions deny “basic services that women have a right to receive no matter where they live.”
Over the past decade, states have enacted nearly 500 abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think thank in Washington, D.C. That’s about 40 percent of all restrictions enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court legalize abortion nearly a half century ago. The wave of state laws has contributed to a significant drop in the number of clinics offering abortion services.
A veteran North Carolina Republican lawmaker strongly objected to her colleagues’ assertion that the restrictions harm women.
“States are grappling with issues of how to defend and preserve life and support high standards for women’s health care. As states continue to explore ways to do so in recent years, we are now at a reflection point,” said North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, a high-ranking Republican on the committee.
“I hardly find that anyone is losing access to anything, anyone save the defenseless,” she said. “The pendulum in the states is not one that is swinging against women, not in the slightest.”
The hearing focused on Missouri, one of six states in the country with only one clinic providing abortion services. Some 30 years ago, the state was home to nearly 30 such clinics, said Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Missouri’s Planned Parenthood clinic.
The restrictions are the result of a political “abuse of power” to restrict access to the procedure, McNicholas said.
Missouri is at risk of becoming the first in the country without a clinic that provides abortion services since the constitutional right to
abortion was recognized in Roe v. Wade.
The state’s restrictions came under scrutiny at the hearing, including its requirement that patients undergo pelvic examinations before receiving an abortion.
The Missouri health department’s practice of tracking some women’s menstrual cycles, which the state’s top health official admitted to last month, also drew attention during the hearing. The department’s director testified that the department maintained a spreadsheet documenting the dates of clinic patients’ periods, according to a report in the Kansas City Star.
“I cannot begin to describe my disgust at these violations of privacy and breaches of trust by government officials,” Maloney said, adding that they’re not taking place in isolation. Maloney was born in North Carolina and is a graduate of Greensboro College.
‘Hostility’ to reproductive rights
More than half of states — including North Carolina — have shown “hostility” to reproductive rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
North Carolina has enacted numerous restrictions on the procedure, such as requiring patients to receive anti-abortion counseling, undergo an ultrasound before obtaining the procedure and wait 72 hours before the procedure is performed. Health insurance plans offered to public employees and on the state’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act can only cover abortion in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest, according to the institute.
Efforts to enact these types of laws are emboldened by the Trump administration’s attacks on reproductive health care, lawmakers said.
They pointed to the Trump administration’s so-called domestic gag rule, which bans federally funded clinics serving low-income people from discussing abortion care with patients or referring them to abortion providers.
The rule puts reproductive health care at risk for some four million patients, particularly low-income women and individuals of color, Democratic lawmakers said Thursday morning at a press conference.
The U.S. House passed legislation in June that would block the rule from taking effect, but it has not passed the Senate. “This is a fight we are in,” Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said at the press conference.
The issue of reproductive rights will come before the U.S. Supreme Court this term when it weighs a Louisiana law that requires any physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The court previously struck down a similar law in Texas, but its stance on the issue may change now that Justice Brett Kavanaugh has replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the liberal wing in the Texas case.
Thursday’s House hearing also featured testimony from a woman who received an abortion and leaders of national women’s rights groups.
Abortion opponent Allie Stuckey testified at the invitation of committee Republicans. In heated testimony, she made no distinction between fetuses and babies and said abortion care is not health care — points reiterated by committee Republicans.
Many on the other side of the aisle refuse to “recognize the humanity” of fetuses, Georgia Republican Rep. Jody Hice said.
Michigan Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence said she was disappointed Republicans used the hearing to make “blatantly false claims” and engaged in the type of “deceptive rhetoric” that she said is an attempt to distract from efforts to put abortion out of women’s reach.
Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom network of which Policy Watch is a member.