It’s Been a Terrible Year for Reproductive Rights

2014 will go down as the year anti-choicers' goal of ending legal abortion came within their grasp. It's also the year they opened up a new front in the "war on women" by starting preliminary legal attacks on contraception access.

2014 will go down as the year anti-choicers' goal of ending legal abortion came within their grasp. It's also the year they opened up a new front in the "war on women" by starting preliminary legal attacks on contraception access. Shutterstock

Looking over the battle for reproductive rights that took place in 2014, I wish I could say that I’m optimistic for the coming year. But that, frankly, would be a lie. The sad fact of the matter is those who oppose the basic right to control one’s own reproduction have had a banner year, as they watch their efforts to chip away at abortion and contraception access finally come together in such a way that the restrictions may become permanent. Things are looking bleak for American women, and there’s no way to get around that fact.

There are three big court cases that really show how dire things got in 2014: Planned Parenthood v. AbbottWhole Woman’s Health v. Lakey, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The first two deal with the same outrageous semi-ban on abortion in Texas; the third, as you probably know, gives employers the opportunity to inflict their judgments on their employees’ private lives.

The progress of the first two cases, in particular, shows that anti-choicers really are getting close to their desired goal of shutting down access to legal abortion for huge swaths of American women, especially those who don’t have the means to travel and pay for legal, safe abortion care. The first, Planned Parenthood, was a chilling display of how little the radical-right crop of judges pushed into power by conservatives over the last few decades cares for things like precedent or common sense when it comes to hammering through their agenda. The case addressed the part of the Texas bill, HB 2, that banned doctors from providing abortions unless they have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, something that is nearly impossible for many rural doctors to obtain. In March, the Fifth Circuit ruled that those restrictions were constitutional.

Even though abortion laws must not impose an “undue burden” on abortion provision, Judge Edith Jones decided to define “undue” so loosely in her written opinion that it appears no burden can actually be undue. As detailed by Jessica Mason Pieklo at Rewire, “As far as the Fifth Circuit is concerned, when states like Texas pass laws restricting abortion rights in the name of maternal health, they have no obligation to prove, with evidence, that those restrictions will actually advance maternal health.”

In other words, I guess you could theoretically pass a law requiring women to be ritually beaten and forcibly dehydrated before they get an abortion, but as long as you claim that you’re doing it for their health, hey, who are the experts to stop you? That logic shut down almost half the clinics in Texas.

Round two, Whole Women’s Health, has fared ever-so-slightly better. The part of HB 2 that would force clinics to meet ambulatory surgical center standards—even if all the facilities do is provide the abortion pill—was also upheld by the “all restrictions are good restrictions” Fifth Circuit court. But, at the last minute, the Supreme Court allowed an injunction against that decision. While that saves the hides of some of the clinics in Texas, however, the injunction isn’t necessarily a sign that things are turning around. It’s just as likely that it suggests the Supreme Court knows it will eventually have to deal with all these new state regulations, Texas’ among them, that amount to a near-ban on abortion, and it is preparing to do just that. Unfortunately, the last time the Supreme Court heard a case regarding an abortion ban, it was upheld. The balance of power in the Court between liberals and conservatives has not changed since then.

Perhaps it’s because those in favor of reproductive rights restrictions sense victory on the horizon when it comes to abortion, but 2014 also ended up being the year contraception ended up back in front of the Supreme Court. This was the first time the Court had ruled on the matter since 1971, when the Court decreed that women have a right to access contraception, even if they aren’t married. And this time, contraception lost, which goes to show how thorough the project of turning the courts over to rabid, radicalized right-wingers has really been. After all, more than 99 percent of sexually active women ages 15-to-44 have used birth control, and 90 percent of Americans say it’s morally acceptable. Still, that small minority of contraception-haters somehow wowed the highest court in the land.

Of course, the ostensible justification for the anti-contraception ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which the Court ruled that employers can be exempted from federal law requiring that the insurance plans you pay for for your employees cover contraception, is that this isn’t about contraception but rather “religious freedom.” This excuse is asinine: The only “religious freedom” the Court agreed to protect was the “freedom” to restrict someone else’s access to contraception. If you want to deny your employees, say, insurance coverage of blood transfusions or painkillers, too bad. “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs,” the decision read. So either religion only concerns contraception, and the hating thereof, or this is just an anti-contraception decision, with “religious freedom” being little more than window dressing to make the radicalism of it all easier to swallow.

What do we have to look forward to in 2015, then? Unfortunately, things do not look like they’re getting better. As Molly Redden at Mother Jones explains, anti-choicers now have even more seats in state legislatures than they did in 2014, and they apparently can barely wait to use their new power to pass more and more laws trying to take ownership over your uterus. And while much of their pre-filed legislation is about abortion, the increasing hostility toward contraception is peeking out already, as well, with a proposed bill to try to keep schools from hiring Planned Parenthood (as in, the experts) to teach sex ed and a bill to keep counties and towns from forcing deceptive crisis pregnancy centers to disclose the fact that they don’t offer abortion or contraception services.

If there is any silver lining to be found here, it’s that all these attacks on abortion and contraception aren’t coming out of nowhere. It’s clear that the escalation in anti-choice activism is a reaction to something, and it’s not hard to guess what it is: Women have, in recent years, really been gaining control over our reproductive capacities. Teen births are down, the average age of first birth is going up, and contraception use is clearly improving. Those against reproductive rights are losing culturally, so they’re going to try to regain control legally. Unfortunately, as this year’s events show, there’s a lot of power in going that route.