Advocates Testify Before Congress on the Women’s Health Protection Act: Abortion Restrictions Are the “New Jane Crow”

“As a health care provider, it is abhorrent to me that the laws restricting abortion are passed under the pretense of making abortion safe when they actually do the opposite.”

—Dr. Jamila Perritt, president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health

Advocates Testify Before Congress on the Women’s Health Protection Act: Abortion Restrictions Are the “New Jane Crow”
Outside the Supreme Court for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in June 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) chaired a hearing on the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), which he and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) introduced last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives with historic support. WHPA would codify Roe v. Wade in federal law and establish the legal right to abortion in all 50 states.

“As the Supreme Court considers a direct attack on Roe and as extremist lawmakers viciously attack women’s reproductive rights in statehouses across the nation, the Women’s Health Protection Act has never been more urgent or more necessary,” said Blumenthal.

WHPA would guarantee pregnant women’s access to abortion and protect the right of abortion providers to deliver these services free from medically unnecessary restrictions that interfere with a patient’s individual choice or the provider-patient relationship. WHPA prohibits states from singling out abortion procedures for restrictions not required for other, similar medical procedures. For enforcement, the law allows the U.S. attorney general or private individuals such as physicians or patients to challenge violations of WHPA in court.

A recent poll reveals that 61 percent of voters believe abortion rights should be protected with a new federal law like WHPA—yet lawmakers across 47 states introduced 561 abortion restrictions since January, including 165 abortion bans (as of June 14, 2021). A staggering 83 of those restrictions have been enacted across 16 states, including 10 bans. 

“The fact is that reproductive rights are publicly supported as never before, but they are threatened more deeply and dangerously than any time in recent history. The threat is draconian, destructive laws at the state level,” said Blumenthal.

States are passing these new restrictions despite the 2016 Supreme Court case of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt strengthening constitutional abortion rights and the 2019 Supreme Court case of June Medical Services v. Russo reaffirming abortion rights. In light of Trump’s three anti-abortion appointments to the Supreme Court, and the Court’s recent decision to accept review of a Mississippi abortion ban in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, advocates are calling on Congress to create a federal statutory right to abortion by passing WHPA.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution heard powerful testimony from Dr. Jamila Perritt, president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health, Professor Michele Goodwin of the University of California at Irvine School of Law, and an abortion storyteller named Tohan from Texas. These three Black women testified in favor of WHPA. Two white women also testified against WHPA: the heads of Americans United for Life and the Abortion Survivors Network.

Perritt, Goodwin and Tohan emphasized the disproportionate and devastating impact of abortion restrictions on women of color, Black women in particular. The opponents of WHPA cited Martin Luther King, but did not counter the testimony about these racially discriminatory impacts.

Dr. Jamila Perritt: “When Ideology Takes the Place of Medical Care and Science, My Patients Suffer”

Advocates Testify Before Congress on the Women’s Health Protection Act: Abortion Restrictions Are the “New Jane Crow”
Dr. Jamila Perritt.

Perritt spoke first about the impact of medically unnecessary restrictions on physicians and their patients:

“As a physician, I find it unconscionable that politicians and pundits paint abortion as a hopelessly divisive issue when in fact it is a deeply personal decision rooted in autonomy, self-determination, health and well-being. When ideology takes the place of medical care and science, my patients suffer. When states block access to abortion, those restrictions, like waiting periods, arbitrary limits, senseless clinic regulations, prohibitions on telehealth, among many others, fall most heavily on those who already face the most barriers to health care. Black, Indigenous and other people of color, immigrants, young people, LBGTQ+ folks, as well as those living in geographically isolated areas bear the brunt of these ideological battles at the expense of their dignity and at the expense of their health.”

Perritt then described the safety of abortion and the danger caused by medically unnecessary restrictions:

“Abortion is extremely safe and none of the arbitrary barriers I just mentioned make it any safer. In fact, in 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a comprehensive study affirming the safety record of abortion and pointed out that the biggest threat to patient safety is the litany of medically unnecessary regulations that raise costs and delay procedures, ultimately putting patients’ health at risk. They confirmed what we already know: abortion is safe, and restrictions—like the ones WHPA would help stop—make it less safe.

“As a health care provider, it is abhorrent to me that the laws restricting abortion are passed under the pretense of making abortion safe when they actually do the opposite. … It is disingenuous for politicians to claim that they care about or nation’s ongoing maternal health crisis and in the same breath attempt to limit access to abortion care through unnecessary regulation and restriction. These issues are one and the same.”

Perritt emphasized the impact of abortion restrictions on Black women’s lives.

“It is undeniable: We have a two-tiered system for reproductive health care in the United States and it is getting worse. The stakes are as high as they have ever been. We are only beginning to emerge from an ongoing pandemic that has disproportionately harmed communities of color and we continue to reckon with racial injustice and the systemic killing of Black people by police. These measures to restrict and criminalize abortion are yet another form of the reproductive oppression that people of color have been subject to for centuries…

“As a doctor and a Black woman, when I think about the care my community needs and deserves, I know that access to abortion is essential for healthy, free lives. The time for this subcommittee to act is now. My patients deserve support. They deserve autonomy and agency. These are medical decisions and my job as a doctor is to support those decisions. No one should be controlling their health or their future except them. Laws like the ones WHPA would protect against are not about health care or safety; they are about control. Politics has no place in the healthcare I provide.”

Dr. Michele Goodwin: “Coercing Women To Remain Pregnant Does Not Keep Them Safe”

Advocates Testify Before Congress on the Women’s Health Protection Act: Abortion Restrictions Are the “New Jane Crow”
Dr. Michele Goodwin.

Michele Goodwin—host of the Ms. podcast “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”—then testified about how dangerous abortion restrictions are, especially for women of color.

“A woman is fourteen times more likely to die in childbirth than by having an abortion. In states most aggressively legislating against abortion rights, the maternal mortality rates are devastatingly high and reflect glaring, grotesque, racial disparities. This is a critical aspect of the new Jane Crow.”

In written testimony, Goodwin explained:

“Abortion laws enacted today cannot be divorced from history nor the conditions undergirding women’s lives in the present. For women of color, this includes unequal wages, disproportionately living in poverty and relatedly near environmental pollution, poor housing conditions, segregated schooling, targeted immigration surveillance, voter suppression, high maternal mortality rates, and devastating rates of infant mortality.”

Goodwin gave shocking examples of how states with more abortion restrictions have higher maternal mortality rates, especially for Black women.

“Texas has been referred to as the deadliest place in the developed world for a woman to be pregnant. A comparison of pregnancy-related deaths in Texas to induced abortion-case fatalities reveals how dangerous it is for states to coerce people to remain pregnant when they would otherwise choose to have an abortion…It is roughly 42 times more dangerous for someone to give birth in Texas than it is for them to have an abortion.”

But other nearby states are even worse than Texas, wrote Goodwin.

“In Mississippi, it is near 188 times more dangerous for a Black woman to give birth than it is for them to have an abortion. In Louisiana, it is roughly 57 times more dangerous for someone to give birth than it is for them to have an abortion. From 2011 to 2016, Black mothers were 4.1 times as likely to die as white mothers in Louisiana…

“Abortion bans are not about protecting the health of pregnant people or saving women’s lives. Coercing women to remain pregnant does not keep them safe. Instead, it can be deadly.”

Tohan: “My Abortion … Allowed Me To Leave My Abuser, Care for My Son, and Move on With My Life”

A woman named Tohan then testified to the subcommittee about her own experience trying to obtain an abortion in Houston, Texas, in 2018. Tohan described the numerous barriers to abortion she faced, including counseling with state-mandated lies claiming abortion was dangerous and would harm her fertility, a 24-hour mandatory delay, a medically unnecessary ultrasound, and an insurance coverage ban on her procedure that forced her to take out high interest loans that cost her thousands of dollars to pay off.

“Senators, I am asking you to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act,” pleaded Tohan. “We need a federal law to protect us from these medically unnecessary laws that delay our access to abortion care and make the experience really difficult. We deserve medically accurate information. We deserve to have our appointments as soon as we make our decision. We deserve abortion care in our communities. I am thankful for my abortion because it allowed me to leave my abuser, care for my son, and move on with my life.”

Denying People Abortion Care Is Dangerous for Their Health: “The Time for Congress to Act Is Now”

A rigorous, ten-year study has shown that denial of a wanted abortion has devastating physical, psychological and economic impacts on women. Dr. Diana Greene Foster, principal investigator of the landmark Turnaway Study and director of research at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health found that women denied abortion care had more serious health problems giving birth than those having an abortion, were more likely to stay in contact with a violent partner, were more likely to be left to raise the resulting child alone, and experienced economic hardship and insecurity which lasted for years.

In fact, these women had almost four times greater odds of a household income below the federal poverty level, three times greater odds of being unemployed, and were more likely to be unable to pay for basic family necessities like food, housing, and transportation.

“The United States has never been closer to losing the fundamental right to access abortion than right now,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights after yesterday’s hearing. “State legislators have passed so many restrictions that abortion is already out of reach for many people. WHPA is the answer to these politically-motivated, unconstitutional restrictions and the time for Congress to act is now.”

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.