The U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing Tuesday on the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would outlaw many TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws that have unnecessarily restricted access to abortion services. While many of the nine witnesses presented eloquent testimony in support of the act, the hearing also served as a showcase for wildly inaccurate statements about abortion safety and access.
The act was introduced in November 2013 by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and currently has 35 cosponsors in the Senate. Its companion bill in the House, introduced by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), currently has 124 co-sponsors. If the bills become law, states could no longer impose admitting-privilege requirements, require abortion facilities to meet ambulatory surgical center standards, force women to make “medically unnecessary visits,” undergo other unnecessary procedures prior to the abortion or impose other regulations not required for “medically comparable procedures.” The act would specifically prevent regulations that make abortion inaccessible by delaying care, increasing the cost of abortion (including “travel, childcare and time off work” costs) and greatly increasing travel time to clinics. It does not deal with laws regulating access to clinic entrances, parental consent requirements or insurance coverage of abortions.
In support of the act, Chu noted during the hearing,
We are witnessing an alarming moment in time. Attacks on reproductive rights are intensifying … A woman’s constitutional right [to access abortion services] now depends on her zip code.
Indeed, a woman’s address has become increasingly important, as TRAP laws force the closure of abortion clinics across the country, increasing wait times at remaining clinics and forcing women to travel further and further for health care. As of 2011, nearly 40 percent of women in the U.S. lived in counties that lacked an abortion provider, and with 26 states currently enforcing unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers, the number of accessible clinics is sure to decrease in the coming months.
For example, Wisconsin, where nearly 70 percent of women currently live in counties without abortion clinics, requires women to undergo invasive ultrasounds and counseling and observe a 24-hour waiting period prior to having an abortion. An admitting-privileges requirement has been enjoined pending review by a federal court, but if it were to take effect two of Wisconsin’s four abortion clinics would likely close.
During the Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told the story of one woman from Middleton, WI, who sought an emergency termination of her pregnancy after discovering her fetus had a severe anomaly and would not survive. At the time, the closest clinic in Milwaukee was not offering abortion services because it was preparing to close its doors after the enactment of the admitting privileges requirement. The woman then had to find childcare for her two sons and travel out-of-state to undergo an abortion.
Baldwin criticized these TRAP laws, saying,
Some politicians are [enacting them] because they think they know better than women and their doctors, and the fact is that they don’t. Women are more than capable of making their own personal medical decisions without consulting their legislator.
This is the most humiliating and degrading law I have seen in Wisconsin … Ultrasounds are being used in Wisconsin as political bludgeons.
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, testified that these laws target underprivileged women who are forced to make desperate decisions to access abortion services. She pointed to the 1.3 million residents in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where regulations on abortion providers have shut down all clinics offering abortions within 250 miles of the valley. As a result, some women in the area are crossing into Mexico to receive reproductive care.
A large number of medical professionals and organizations have come out in support of the Women’s Health Protection Act. Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider in Mississippi, testified that TRAP laws do not improve women’s health and noted his reasons for supporting the act:
I want for women what I want for myself: a life of dignity, health, self determination, and the opportunity to excel and contribute. We know that when women have access to abortion, contraception and medically accurate sex education, they thrive.
The America College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also submitted testimony in support of the act and have released statements in the past pointing to the danger TRAP laws pose to women’s ability to access safe reproductive health care.
Despite this ample evidence, the anti-choice witnesses during the hearing refused to abandon their disinformation and erroneous assertions about abortion. Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) incorrectly testified that abortion leads to breast cancer and mental health issues, along with other complications, going against medical evidence.
Another person testified about the “robust literature” on the relationship between abortion and mental illness. The American Psychology Association has previously stated that no evidence exists to suggest a single abortion causes mental health issues. Many of the other opposing witnesses to the act suggested abortion providers engaged in dangerous medicine. Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, simply wished that Roe v. Wade be overturned, revealing the real intent behind state TRAP laws.
The Women’s Health Protection Act—if passed—would combat state laws disguised as pro-women’s health but that are actually aimed at making abortion more inaccessible. As Rep. Chu said, “We need laws that put women’s health and safety first …”
Photo of Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) during a Senate hearing on the Women’s Health Protection Act.
Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.