A woman’s access to safe reproductive health care “shouldn’t depend on her ZIP code,” multiple witnesses said during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday on the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), which would invalidate numerous state restrictions on abortion. While witnesses on both sides of the issue claimed to be in favor of protecting women’s health, anti-choice witnesses relied heavily on debunked science and distorted interpretations of the bill to make many of their claims.
The WHPA, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), is a response to a wave of hundreds of state laws restricting abortion that have passed in the last several years. Anti-choice supporters of these kinds of bills claim they merely protect women’s health by regulating abortion, but the effect of laws like these has been to close numerous safe clinics, force women to make extra trips to the doctor or undergo medically unnecessary procedures, and otherwise impede access to safe, legal abortion care.
Blumenthal called such laws a “pernicious charade” during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. His bill would ban a list of specific types of anti-choice laws, as well as laws similar to those listed if they single out abortion providers. It specifically excludes parental notification laws, insurance coverage restrictions, and any laws involving clinic violence.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, recalled linking arms with fellow citizens 25 years ago to keep Operation Rescue protesters from blocking the doors to an abortion clinic—the kind of physical obstruction later prevented by the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. But now, she said, the blockade is legislative: “Today, women’s access to abortion services is being blocked through an avalanche of pretextual laws designed to accomplish by the pen what could not be accomplished through brute force—the closure of facilities providing essential reproductive health care to the women of this country.”
Northup noted that major respected medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, endorse the WHPA.
The committee also heard from Dr. Willie Parker, a doctor at Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic which is under threat of closure. Mississippi’s TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) law requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges with a local hospital, but Parker has been denied them, despite previously having had admitting privileges in Chicago. He testified that many hospitals declined even to evaluate his application; it’s common for hospitals to deny admitting privileges for abortion doctors for political or PR reasons. Admitting privileges are “irrelevant,” Parker said, because patients will be admitted to the nearest hospital regardless in the event of an emergency.
Parker said he continues working in Mississippi because he feels a moral calling to do so. “Some people ask if I am concerned for my own safety,” he said. “Of course I am. But I am less concerned for my safety than for what will happen to women if I am not there to provide the care they need and deserve.”
Anti-choice OB-GYN Monique Chireau claimed that admitting privileges are denied for reasons of competence, not politics. She also cited several widely-discredited studies on the alleged dangers of abortion, including one about mental health problems resulting from abortion that was found to have serious flaws, and one with likely-inflated claims of complications from abortion in Finland that is not supported by other studies on complications.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) questioned Northup relentlessly, often talking over her, about whether the law would affect so-called “conscience clauses” (it’s not intended to and doesn’t mention them) and whether she could name any state that would be able to keep its waiting period laws if the WHPA passed. Northup didn’t mention a specific state in the hearing, but said that waiting periods could stand if they didn’t last too long.
Amy Friedrich-Karnik, federal policy advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights, clarified to RH Reality Check that as long as a waiting period law did not require an extra, medically unnecessary visit to a doctor’s office or a crisis pregnancy center, it would likely stand. Many states, for instance, have 24-hour waiting periods that only require a phone counseling session before the appointment, which reduces the burden on working women who can’t afford to take multiple days off of work or child care.
National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) President Carol Tobias invoked the horrific case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell to suggest that abortion needs to be more strictly regulated. But NRLC’s state legislative director recently admitted in a speech that abortion carries fewer risks than childbirth, and pro-choice advocates argue that restricting access to safe abortion risks creating more Gosnells.
Tobias also called the WHPA the “Abortion Without Limits Until Birth Act,” mischaracterizing both the bill’s intent and its contents. Certain restrictions could remain in place, and states would still be able to restrict abortion after fetal viability, as long as there are exceptions for rape, incest, and the life or health of the pregnant woman. That’s the standard set by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, and that’s the standard the bill’s supporters want to see the states return to in a uniform way.
“Basically this law enforces the Constitution,” Blumenthal said.