The recent success of mega-wealthy, so-called Pro-Life Republican women in their political campaigns for U.S. Senate and several gubernatorial seats, coupled with new legislation by some states to curb abortion, and the conservative right's attempts to stop a new contraceptive pill, are reason for concern. For women of childbearing age, and those who care about them, it's de'jÃ vu all over again as they try to keep abortion available, legal, and punishment-free, and to keep contraceptive choices available.
The use of ultrasound to stop a woman having an abortion has been mounting for the past several years. To date twenty states have enacted legislation to encourage or require the use of ultrasound to this end. For example, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi require abortion providers to use ultrasound in order to give women a chance to peek into their wombs prior to terminating a pregnancy.
Oklahoma went a step further. The Republican-controlled legislature there forced through a law over the governor's veto requiring that women be shown an ultrasound image and that they be given a detailed verbal description of the fetus's developmental stage. While women needing an abortion for emergency medical reasons are exempt, victims of rape or incest are not. The law has since been suspended because of a pending legal challenge. Limited research on this practice shows that while women may well choose to view what's going on in their uterus, it does not alter their abortion decision. Sometimes it reinforces it.
Ultrasound isn't the only way to stress out women who have made one of life's most difficult and private -- decisions. In Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who could be a Republican presidential candidate in 2012, signed a bill that bars insurance companies from covering abortion in insurance exchanges as called for under new federal health regulations. In Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry's veto was overridden by a zealous Republican legislature which now requires doctors who perform abortions to answer a set of more than three dozen questions about each procedure they do, including the woman's reason for ending her pregnancy. Arizona, which has a conservative woman governor, passed a law banning coverage of abortion in the state employees' health plan while in Nebraska all abortions are banned after twenty weeks even though the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that viability occurs at twenty-six weeks. In view of that, the Nebraska law is likely to face a legal challenge.
According to the well-respected Guttmacher Institute, close to 400 state bills regulating abortion have been introduced this year and at least two dozen of them have passed. These bills are "of serious consequence" according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which describes the onslaught of new legislation as "an avalanche." The Center has filed suits against six of the laws to date while the National Right to Life Committee calls 2010 "a good year" in a "friendlier climate."
Meanwhile a battle was mounted recently against a new "morning after" contraceptive pill developed by a French company and currently available in 22 countries. The drug, called Ella, works for 120 hours after sexual intercourse, notably longer than Plan B's 72 hours. But Ella is chemically similar to the controversial RU-486 in that it also acts to block the action of progesterone. While RU-486 can induce abortion, it is unclear whether Ella would do that; still, "Pro-Lifers" wanted to see it banned. The Food and Drug Administration convened an advisory panel to consider Ella in June. The panel voted unanimously that the FDA should approve the drug, which it did last month.
American women have been fighting for the right to reproductive privacy and self-determination ever since Margaret Sanger began her struggle to provide sex education and contraception to women in the early 20th century. They've made many gains since then, to be sure. Still, ten years into the 21st century women continue to confront forces that present serious challenges to their human right to bear children if and when they choose. The latest challenges, whether from repressive state legislators or misguided individual zealots, are a reminder that the task is far from complete.