Washington Acts for Women

Advocates team up to garner remarkable Capitol Hill support for a federal bill protecting women’s access to abortion care.

“There are women languishing around the country who cannot speak for themselves. Women who've had services closed in their face. Poor women. College women. Hispanic women,” Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee told an energized and diverse crowd of reproductive health advocates who gathered on Capitol Hill last week. “How dare someone say to these women, whose rights should be equal to everyone, ‘You cannot have access to health services.’”

Approximately 140 state and federal advocates, faith leaders, health practitioners, and clinic workers congregated in Washington, DC, on May 11 and 12 to advocate for the Women’s Health Protection Act. They’re all part of the Act for Women campaign, which provides unified support for this federal legislation that would prohibit states from imposing restrictions that limit women’s access to safe and legal abortion services.

“We want to see patients,” said Andrea Ferrigno to the crowd, “But we also fear we're going to close.” Ferrigno is the corporate vice president of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with a number of clinics in Texas that are threatened by Texas HB2, a state law now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Staff told us they'd stay until the last day. One of the worst things is to have a conversation with a patient and tell them you can't give them care.”

Ferrigno and Rep. Jackson-Lee’s comments go to the heart of the urgency for the Women’s Health Protection Act, originally introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Judy Chu in late 2013. The proposed bill is an answer to the torrent of state-level laws over the last five years that target women’s constitutional rights and access to abortion care.

Organized by the Center for Reproductive Rights and our partners in the Act for Women campaign, the advocacy day deployed delegations from 28 states into no less than 115 meetings with lawmakers and their staff to discuss the need for a federal law that genuinely prioritizes the health and rights of women and invalidates these state measures.

At the end of the whirlwind two days, it was clear the Act for Women message had come through loud and clear. The bill gained 12 new co-sponsors, bringing the total number of Congressional sponsors to 173. That number is expected to rise even higher over the next week.

“It was an extraordinary two days,” said Amy Friedrich-Karnik, senior federal policy adviser at the Center. “The energy of all of these advocates coming together was unforgettable, and we were so pleased by the number of Congress members who expressed their support in so many ways. The Act for Women campaign made essential strides with this event in fighting back against the tide of state restrictions on women’s health.”

The assault is obvious from the raw legislative data. The number of state bills that would restrict reproductive health care proposed already in 2016: 359. Number passed: 45. Number passed since 2011: nearly 300. Mandatory delays and two-trip requirements, forced ultrasounds, biased counseling about abortion “reversal,” admitting privilege requirements, hospital-like building codes, insurance restrictions, pre-viability bans—the list goes on and on and has become increasingly absurd.   

This past session the state of Louisiana alone has introduced more than a dozen restrictions, including a 72-hour waiting period, a bill defunding reproductive health providers, a ban that would force a woman to defend her reasons for getting an abortion, and a bill mandating that fetal tissue must be cremated or buried.

One proposed measure in Kentucky would force a woman who has decided to have an abortion to first watch a video of approved adoptive parents. In Alabama, lawmakers enacted a bill that would make it illegal for a licensed reproductive health clinic to operate within 2000 feet of public school property.

“Some of the proposed bills this session are flat-out nuts,” says Amanda Allen, senior state legislative counsel at the Center. “Many of them aren’t even pretending to safeguard women’s health anymore. While the Women’s Health Protection Act can’t eliminate all of these off-the-wall bills, it would invalidate any measure that unfairly targets abortion providers and limits women’s access to reproductive care.”

In preparation for the Women’s Health Protection Act being re-introduced next session, the 60 Act for Women campaign members will continue to be active around the country this summer and fall, hosting town hall meetings and webinars, doing door-to-door canvassing, and working with state lawmakers to advance legislation to improve women’s access to essential health care.

Resources, events, and news about the Women’s Health Protection Act can be found on the campaign website at actforwomen.org.


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