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Crisis in the South

Over the last four years, access to abortion care has been shrinking all across the United States. In the South, the situation has become particularly dire.

Last month, under the cover of night, a hooded intruder took a hatchet-like tool to the last abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi—smashing security cameras, damaging the generator, and attempting to cut the power lines.

It was an extreme act of violence, intended to disable the clinic and prevent women from obtaining essential care. Yet for the past few years, anti-choice forces all across the South have been inflicting comparable—if not more devastating—damage by relentlessly pushing disingenuous and often unconstitutional laws designed to do the very same thing.

The result is that in 2015, countless women are now stranded without access to safe, legal reproductive health services. 

Right now in Florida, the latest bill limiting abortion access is snaking its way through the state legislature. HB 633 would impose a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking abortion care. The proposed law requires a woman to meet face to face with her physician the day before the procedure, thereby mandating at least two separate trips to the clinic.

For a woman with a car, job security, and some savings, this requirement is an inconvenience and an insult to her personal decision-making process.  

But for a woman with little or no income, that extra trip is more insidious. The burden of additional child care, lost wages (or lost jobs), transportation, and a possible overnight stay can quickly turn a waiting period into an absolute barrier to obtaining an abortion at all.

Of course, from the perspective of anti-choice lawmakers, that is the goal.

If this latest mandatory delay bill passes, Florida will join 10 other states in the region that impose the intrusive and medically unwarranted restriction that disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color. A number of these policies have been enacted—or worsened—in the last four years as abortion restrictions have consumed the attention of legislators across the country.

Several states have even pushed to further extend the mandatory waiting periods from 24 to 48—and even 72—hours. Arkansas, which recently passed a law forcing women to wait 48 hours and make two separate trips before obtaining abortion services, is now on track to pass the highest number of restrictions of any state in the U.S. in 2015 so far.

“Since the 2010 midterm elections when anti-choice politicians took over so many state governments, we have seen a decimation of the landscape of abortion rights—particularly in the South,” says Amanda Allen, state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“From state-mandated waiting periods to requirements that providers have unnecessary admitting privileges to building requirements aimed at shutting down clinics,” she adds, “sham laws that pretend to protect women’s health while actually restricting their ability to obtain safe, comprehensive health care have created a genuine crisis of access from Texas to Mississippi to Florida to North Carolina.”

In recent years, Southern states have passed more than 60 bills that restrict access to reproductive health care.

  • Seven states (AL, LA, MS, NC, OK, TN, VA) have passed a reproductive health care restriction at least three out of the last four years. Four of those have passed such a law every single year.
  • Since 2011, six states (AR, NC, TX, LA, VA, AL) have passed two-trip requirements or worsened an existing waiting period requirement.
  • Half of the 12 Southern states (AR, AL, LA, MS, SC, OK) now have only five or fewer clinics offering abortion services. Four of these states have three clinics or fewer.

A recent study showed that if an admitting privileges law enacted last year in Louisiana were to go into effect (it is currently blocked), it would force three quarters of the state’s women to travel 150 miles or more each way for services. This may actually underestimate the distance women would have to travel because three of the closest states to Louisiana (TX, MS, AL) have also passed admitting privileges laws and other restrictions that could close even more abortion facilities.

Without proper care and resources, women in the South—particularly those most marginalized—face overwhelming challenges in gaining access to their most basic and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

“More and more states are considering legislation along the lines of what we’ve seen in Texas, where sham laws have shut down approximately half of the state’s clinics, and in states like Oklahoma and Louisiana, clinics are hanging on by a court order,” says Allen. “The South is being ravaged, and it has to stop.”

One promising answer to the incessant attacks on abortion access is the Women’s Health Protection Act, a piece of federal legislation that would make state laws that single out abortion for restrictions that only pretend to ensure health and safety but actually only reduce access unlawful, and affirm that our constitutional rights should not vary by state or region.

The Women’s Health Protection Act was reintroduced in Congress in January and currently has 134 sponsors in the House and Senate.

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