White GOP Lawmakers Behind Almost Every Anti-Choice Bill in 2017

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White GOP Lawmakers Behind Almost Every Anti-Choice Bill in 2017

Teddy Wilson

"White Republican legislators are disingenuous," said Cherisse Scott, CEO and founder of SisterReach, a reproductive justice advocacy organization. "They do not care about (people of color's) babies or our lives because our voices and lived experiences are not centered in their decision making or policy crafting."

There has been a concerted effort by conservative media and activists to portray the anti-choice movement not as a monolith, but as a diverse coalition. The lawmakers carrying out the anti-choice movement’s policy objectives, however, are almost always white male Republicans.

Of the 167 anti-choice bills introduced in January 2017, 71 percent (119 bills) were sponsored by white Republican men, while 25 percent (41 bills) were sponsored by white Republican women.

Ninety percent of the 147 anti-choice bills introduced in the first month of 2016 were sponsored by white Republicans. 

Reproductive rights advocates say this shines a light on Republican policymakers’ overarching priorities.

“White Republican legislators are disingenuous,” Cherisse Scott, CEO and founder of SisterReach, a reproductive justice advocacy organization, told Rewire. “They do not care about [people of color’s] babies or our lives because our voices and lived experiences are not centered in their decision making or policy crafting. This is not about our babies, because any other time they have an opportunity to center us, they do not—not economically or not environmentally.”

Amanda Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund, a volunteer organization that provides financial assistance for people in Texas seeking abortion care, said in an interview that reproductive rights advocates in Texas have seen firsthand how “white supremacy breeds oppressive policies” disproportionately affecting people of color and those with low incomes. She pointed to the aftermath of the Texas GOP’s HB 2, which led to the closure of more than half the state’s abortion clinics and made abortion care inaccessible for many Texas women.

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The number of abortions in Texas decreased by nearly 9,000 in 2014, the year after the GOP-backed law was implemented. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down two provisions of HB 2, after the well documented impact of the law on Texas women and the disproportional effects on communities of color in south Texas and east Texas.

“Under the guise of ‘right to life,’ these lawmakers are completely out of touch with the realities of people of color’s lives,” Williams said. “Time and time again, our voices and stories have been ignored by lawmakers, and it’s become strikingly clear that their vast disregard for our livelihood only benefits their own power.”

2017 Sees a Renewed Flurry of Anti-Choice Proposals 

State lawmakers, fueled by unprecedented Republican majorities and emboldened by the election of President Trump, introduced 167 anti-choice bills in state legislatures during the first month of 2017, according to an analysis by Rewire.

Legislatures in 43 states convened in January, and another five legislatures began sessions in February. Legislation to restrict reproductive rights was introduced in 34 states in the first month of 2017. Missouri lawmakers introduced 28 anti-choice bills in January, more than any other state. There were 18 anti-choice bills introduced in Texas, 14 anti-choice bills introduced in Oklahoma, and nine anti-choice bills introduced in Mississippi.

The number of anti-choice bills introduced and anti-choice laws enacted by legislatures saw an unprecedented increase after Republicans swept to power across the country in the 2010 midterm elections. There have been 338 abortion restrictions passed by state lawmakers since 2010.

There were 92 restrictions on reproductive rights enacted in 2011, 43 enacted in 2012, 70 enacted in 2013, 26 enacted in 2014, 57 enacted in 2015, and 50 enacted in 2016, according to yearly state policy reviews by the Guttmacher Institute.

State lawmakers have restricted access to abortion care through an assortment of legislation, which has contributed to a unprecedented amount of abortion clinics closing across the country.

Pamela Merritt, co-director of Reproaction, told Rewire that restrictions delaying access to abortion care, creating obstacles to accessing care, or making accessing care financially impossible is the intention of anti-choice lawmakers.

“That’s the goal—to capitalize on poverty, lack of transportation, lack of flexible work schedules by creating a system to access care that rewards people with resources and punishes people without,” Merritt said in an email. “As a result, abortion is becoming a right in name only for far too many poor people, rural people, people of color, and other marginalized communities.”

Texas lawmakers have passed several anti-choice laws, and those laws have had a dramatic impact on access to reproductive health care in the state.

Williams told Rewire that people call the Lilith Fund for assistance about how to proceed after laws pass restricting reproductive rights. These measures not only make abortion care difficult to obtain, but can push safe abortion out of reach.

“In Texas, as barriers here have increased over the years, our callers, who are already facing systemic forms of oppression, are forced to travel farther distances, take additional time off from work, and pay more out of pocket costs for logistical expenses like child care and lodging,” Williams said in an email.

Despite Texas lawmakers’ repeated assertions that laws restricting reproductive rights were intended to protect “women’s health and safety,” Williams contends that theses laws are intended to make abortion care inaccessible.

“The medically unnecessary hurdles our callers face are outright designed to deny them access to safe and legal abortion care,” Williams said.

Scott of SisterReach told Rewire that legislation to restrict reproductive rights has a disproportionate effect on “poor women, women of color, teens and other vulnerable women and girls.” SisterReach is based in Tennessee, where in recent years the state’s Republicans have passed a number of restrictions on reproductive rights.

“The insistence in pushing anti-abortion access legislation proves to us that legislators (are) more concerned with their policy win than (with) women’s health, our self-determination, or the belief in us that we know what is the best plan of action for our families,” Scott, whose organization is based in Tennessee, said in an email.

Tennessee’s health-care system ranks 43rd in the country, according to a report by the Commonwealth Fund and United Health Foundation. Despite public support for Medicaid expansion, Tennessee officials have not expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Tennessee, which in fiscal year 2014 received more federal aid than any other state except Mississippi and Louisiana, has had a persistently high poverty rate and has one of the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rates.

“They are not invested in our safety from rape, incest, domestic violence, (or) police-sanctioned violence, and any attempt to dismantle government safety net programs always hangs in the balance when they run our country,” Scott said. “They are only invested in sterilizing us or breeding us to fuel their economic interests.”

“It’s Time to Be Honest About What We’re Dealing With Here.”

Anti-choice bills this year have moved through the legislative process expeditiously, which reproductive rights advocates suspect is part of a strategy to avoid protests and vocal opposition from reproductive rights activists. 

“Abortion opponents have learned some lessons from Texas,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute. “There was mobilization in 2013 around HB 2 and other state legislatures do not want to confront that. To avoid the opposition, it makes sense to compress the schedule, and once they’ve decided to move a bill they move it very quickly.”

Republican lawmakers in Kentucky moved with breakneck speed to pass restrictions on abortion care. Bills to ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation and require an ultrasound prior to an abortion took just a week to move through committee hearings and floor votes.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed both bills into law shortly after passage, and because the bills were designed as “emergency” measures, they took effect immediately.

Republican lawmakers in Arkansas passed legislation to ban the most commonly used procedure for second-trimester abortion care. The bill zipped through the legislative process, and, as in Kentucky, was on the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) in one week. Hutchinson signed the bill into law, and it will take effect 90 days after the Arkansas legislature adjourns.

Lawmakers who rush anti-choice policies ensure that they won’t hear about impact that legislation will have on marginalized communities. This is by design, abortion rights advocates say.

“It’s time to be honest about what we’re dealing with here,” Scott said. “We cannot rely on the Republican Party to govern the needs and concerns of all people—especially if we are poor, people of color, or women.”