WHAT OTHERS SAY: Political ambition may get in way of women's rights

Thursday, March 13, 2014 | 6:45 p.m. CDT

Reproductive rights were hit hard in the Missouri Legislature on Monday. Women were thrown under the bus because of election-year fervor among Republican lawmakers looking to score big with religious conservatives who make up a big part of their base.

Political ambition and legislative motive may fuel the cause, but that doesn’t make the threat to reproductive freedom any less real. Legislation passed by Republican lawmakers, who have veto-proof majorities in the Senate and the House, may very well wind up restricting the rights of women to get legal abortions.

Democrats also depend on abortion to mobilize their base, and have effectively used it before as a rallying cry to convince women that their reproductive freedom depends on turning out to defeat conservative Republicans.

Lost in the politics of all of this are thousands of women facing difficult choices, choices that they have a right to make regardless of someone else’s political career.

The Missouri House passed bills to triple the mandatory waiting period for women to get an abortion from 24 to 72 hours (of the 26 states that have a waiting period, only Utah and South Dakota require 72 hours) and to mandate notification of both custodial parents before a minor has an abortion. The mandatory waiting period bill is House Bill 1307. The parental notification bill is HB 1192.

All experiences differ

Lawmakers often hold up their own experiences to explain their support for such legislation, as if every woman’s situation was the same. It is highly unlikely that the women affected by their decisions resemble the legislators’ families.

An example is Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Tuscumbia, who introduced the custodial parents’ notification bill. Mr. Miller said he was introducing it because of his experience with his daughter.

He said that he was lucky because his ex-wife had wanted him to be involved in their daughter’s decision regarding an abortion, but had been shocked to learn that both parents do not have to be notified. He said his daughter did not have the abortion.

It’s great that Mr. Miller and his ex-wife have the sort of relationship in which they both are involved with their daughter, but that is not the case with every young woman seeking an abortion. It is also a personal decision that can be made even more traumatic for a woman who may not be able to discuss her sexual experience with both parents.

Then consider the legislative thinking of Rep. David Sater, R-Cassville, who introduced the 72-hour waiting period bill. In discussing why the bill does not include a rape exception, Mr. Sater said rape victims who did not go to a hospital to get the “Plan B” pregnancy prevention pill were making a decision to keep the child if they get pregnant.

How nice that he knows the thinking of every rape victim. How unfortunate that he didn’t mention that in 2010, he sponsored a bill allowing pharmacies to opt out of stocking the so-called “morning after” pills and to prevent women from suing pharmacies for not doing so.

20 more bills await

The Legislature may yet inflict even more damage. Some 20 more bills related to reproductive rights are awaiting hearings. Most of them contain new restrictions and requirements for women seeking abortions, and many focus on the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, the state’s sole abortion provider.

One of the bills would quadruple the number of inspections required for abortion providers from once a year to four times a year. The sponsor of that bill, Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, said it was intended to ensure that the clinics were safe and sanitary and not to restrict abortions.

Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights and research group, said she did not know of another state requiring four annual inspections of a clinic or ambulatory surgery center, which are routinely licensed and inspected once a year.

Nash said Missouri is among the top three states for legislative proposals restricting reproductive rights. Typical Missouri: always at the top for the wrong reasons.

A pro-reproductive rights bill introduced by Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis, to mandate that religious-based pregnancy resource centers have medical staff on board if they offer medical procedures, failed on a party line vote to make it out of a committee hearing.

In floor discussion of the 72-hour waiting period bill, Ms. Newman said she used the word “vagina" to describe the part of a woman’s body that is under attack by the Legislature. Even though that is what some lawmakers are seeking to control, they apparently don’t want to hear it.

Newman wrote later on Facebook, “I hit a nerve because Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, went after me on the floor for using the ‘vagina’ word and attacked my credibility.”

Four decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains an intractable issue. The belief that human life begins at conception and must be protected at all costs is morally defensible.

But so too is the belief that women have the right to control their own bodies. It is the law that states cannot forbid abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy, but it hasn’t stopped lawmakers in Missouri and elsewhere from making it as hard as possible.

Politics and conviction

To be sure, some of those lawmakers are acting out of moral conviction. For others, it’s just good politics. We can’t help but notice that most of the Legislature’s anti-abortion crusaders are men.

Creating more obstacles for women seeking legal abortions will force them to choose unsafe and possible deadly methods for dealing with unplanned pregnancies. This is not a moral solution.

Common ground exists to minimize abortion by preventing unplanned pregnancies. This requires expanding health care, making all forms of birth control cheaper and easier to obtain, and providing access to good sex education programs and family planning information.

This is where the focus should be. Blame and shame are not the name of the game.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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