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State of the States

A daunting 47 new anti-choice restrictions were enacted in the U.S. this year. Advocates are pushing back by advancing proactive laws that protect women’s health.

With the recent clinic attack in Colorado, repeated congressional efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and an upcoming abortion rights battle at the U.S. Supreme Court, the assault on women’s reproductive health care has become impossible to ignore.

Often the most dangerous salvos have come from state legislatures. Over the last several years, state lawmakers have been responsible for passing hundreds of abortion restrictions, and the Center’s year-end report, 2015 State of the States: Fighting Back by Pushing Forward, catalogs 47 new state restrictions passed this year alone.

These measures—including expanded mandatory waiting periods, pre-viability bans, and sham health regulations intended to shut down clinics—willfully disregard scientific accuracy and patients’ health and rights. Blatantly unconstitutional laws in West Virginia and Wisconsin joined the growing national trend of banning abortion after 20 weeks. One law passed this year in Arizona would force doctors to tell patients that medical abortions can be “reversed”—a completely unfounded claim.

In the South, five states voted to lengthen or impose a waiting period between receiving state-mandated biased counseling and obtaining an abortion. Restrictions in three of those states burden patients with the demeaning and onerous requirement of making two separate clinic trips to receive care. These restrictions are particularly dangerous in a region where safe, affordable care is already scarce. 

But the report is not solely gloom and doom. Not all state legislatures are using their lawmaking power to restrict women’s rights. The year 2015 also saw the introduction of an unprecedented 300 proactive reproductive health measures in legislatures from Maine to California.

Both Illinois and Oregon successfully enacted policies that expand contraception access and protect patient confidentiality regarding abortion services.

Even states with long-standing hostility to women’s rights—such as Florida, Texas, and North Dakota—considered bills to protect the rights of pregnant employees and to block politicians from interfering in the doctor-patient relationship.

“By analyzing the actions of legislatures on a state-by-state basis, we can identify the most significant trends threatening women’s access to essential health care,” says Kelly Baden, the Center’s director of state advocacy. “We can also see how our movement is coming together effectively to fight back and frame our values with strong policies that advance reproductive health.”

In addition to cataloging both the good and bad measures, the State of the States also assesses how courts around the country have responded this year when the constitutionality of harmful laws is challenged.

In three major challenges to laws restricting women’s access to abortion services, federal courts did their duty by applying the law to expose these restrictions as medically unjustified attacks. Similarly, every court that reviewed a pre-viability ban—from 20 weeks to as early as 6 weeks—struck down these laws as clear constitutional violations.  

“When politicians do the wrong thing, it is the role of the courts to step in and block the bad law,” Baden notes. “As unfortunate as it is that the courts have had to intervene as much as they have, they have rightly done so in a number of ways this year and we are encouraged by these results.”

One significant exception is the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which failed to apply legal precedent and the U.S. Constitution by upholding parts of clinic shutdown law HB2 in Texas. If allowed to stand, the law would strand huge numbers of women without access to abortion care. In assessing the judicial landscape, the report shows that the Fifth Circuit is clearly out of step with the rest of the country. The Center is currently challenging the ruling in this case at the U.S. Supreme Court. Arguments are likely to be heard this spring.

In the Texas case, the Center is asking the Court to permanently correct the Fifth Circuit’s mistake and to reaffirm four decades of legal precedent that protects a woman’s right to obtain reproductive care without improper government interference. It is the most significant abortion case to be reviewed by the Supreme Court in almost 25 years—and the ruling will likely have implications for years to come.