Tag Archives: right to life

Activists predict abortion to be hot topic in 2016 campaigns

With a deeper-than-ever split between Republicans and Democrats over abortion, activists on both sides of the debate foresee a 2016 presidential campaign in which the nominees tackle the volatile topic more aggressively than in past elections.

Friction over the issue also is likely to surface in key Senate races. And the opposing camps will be further energized by Republican-led congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood and by Supreme Court consideration of tough anti-abortion laws in Texas.

“It’s an amazing convergence of events,” said Charmaine Yoest, CEO of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life. “We haven’t seen a moment like this for 40 years.”

In the presidential race, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is a longtime defender of abortion rights and has voiced strong support for Planned Parenthood — a major provider of abortions, health screenings and contraceptives — it is assailed by anti-abortion activists and Republican officeholders.

In contrast, nearly all of the GOP candidates favor overturning the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Some of the top contenders – including Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – disapprove of abortions even in cases of rape and incest.

“We may very well have the most extreme Republican presidential nominee since Roe – a nominee who’s not in favor of abortion in any possible way,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. The organization, which supports female candidates who back abortion rights, says it is en route to breaking its fundraising records. A similar claim is made by some anti-abortion political action groups.

What’s changed for this election? One factor is the increased polarization of the two major parties. Only a handful of anti-abortion Democrats and abortion-rights Republicans remain in Congress, and recent votes attempting to ban late-term abortions and halt federal funding to Planned Parenthood closely followed party lines.

Another difference: Republicans in the presidential field and in Congress seem more willing than in past campaigns to take the offensive on abortion-related issues. Past nominees George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney opposed abortion but were not as outspoken as some of the current GOP candidates.

“Abortion will bubble over into the general election,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports female candidates opposed to abortion. “If you don’t know how to handle this issue, you will be eviscerated.”

As the campaign unfolds, other factors will help keep the abortion debate in the spotlight.

The Supreme Court will be hearing arguments, probably in March, regarding a Texas law enacted in 2013 that would force numerous abortion clinics to close. One contested provision requires abortion facilities to be constructed like surgical centers; another says doctors performing abortions at clinics must have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

The Texas dispute will have echoes in other states as social conservatives lobby for more laws restricting abortion. Americans United for Life plans a multistate push for a package of bills called the Infants’ Protection Project; one measure would ban abortions performed because of fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome while another would ban abortions after five months of pregnancy.

Also unfolding during the campaign will be a new investigation launched by House Republicans to examine the practices of Planned Parenthood and other major abortion providers. The panel’s chair, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, says its work will likely continue past Election Day.

The investigation — denounced by Democrats as a partisan witch hunt — is among several congressional and state probes resulting from the release of undercover videos made by anti-abortion activists. They claim the videos show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating the sale of fetal tissue in violation of federal law; Planned Parenthood denies any wrongdoing and says the programs in question at a handful of its clinics entailed legal donations of fetal tissue.

Cruz is among many Republicans who have already passed judgment on Planned Parenthood, calling it “an ongoing criminal enterprise.” He welcomed the endorsement of anti-abortion activist Troy Newman, who helped orchestrate the undercover video operation.

Donald Trump, who leads the GOP presidential polls, has been harder to pin down on the issue. He describes himself as “pro-life” and open to defunding Planned Parenthood, while acknowledging that he held different views in the past.

Planned Parenthood’s leaders say a majority of U.S. voters oppose efforts to cut off its federal funding, most of which subsidizes non-abortion health services for patients on Medicaid. Planned Parenthood’s political action fund hopes to spend a record amount – more than $15 million – on election-related advocacy.

The fund’s executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, contends that some GOP presidential hopefuls, including Cruz and Rubio, may have hurt their general election prospects by making strong bids for anti-abortion votes in the primaries.

“They’ve gone so far out on the limb that they won’t be able to crawl back,” she said.

National polls over the years show the American public deeply divided on abortion. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Dec. 22 found 58 percent of U.S. adults saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and 39 percent saying it should be illegal in most or all cases. Forty-five percent viewed Planned Parenthood favorably; 30 percent unfavorably.

Abortion and Planned Parenthood are likely to surface as divisive issues in several of the races that will decide control of the Senate.

New Hampshire features an intriguing race between two women. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, a supporter of abortion rights, hopes to unseat GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte, who is endorsed by anti-abortion groups and favors halting Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.

Other key Senate races likely to feature sharp divisions over abortion include those in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin and the crucial presidential battleground of Ohio, where GOP incumbent Rob Portman is expected to be challenged by former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.

Arkansas anti-abortion law overturned

A federal judge has struck down Arkansas’ attempt to ban most abortions beginning 12 weeks into a woman’s pregnancy, saying viability, not a heartbeat, remains the key factor in determining whether abortions should be allowed.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright last year had stopped enforcement of the law while she reviewed it, and now she has declared that it was unconstitutional. She cited previous court decisions that said abortions shouldn’t be restricted until after a fetus reaches viability, which is typically at 22 to 24 weeks.

“The state presents no evidence that a fetus can live outside the mother’s womb at twelve weeks,” the judge wrote.

By adopting a ban based on a fetal heartbeat, and not the ability to survive, the Arkansas Legislature had adopted the nation’s toughest abortion law last March. Two weeks later, North Dakota lawmakers passed a bill restricting abortions at six weeks – or before some women would know they’re pregnant. That law is on hold.

In her decision, Wright said only a doctor could determine viability.

“The Supreme Court has … stressed that it is not the proper function of the legislature or the courts to place viability at a specific point in the gestation period,” Wright wrote.

Wright left in place a portion of the law that requires doctors to check for a fetal heartbeat and to notify the pregnant woman if one is present.

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, had vetoed the bill, citing the viability standard. But Republicans, controlling the Statehouse for the first time since Reconstruction, overrode him with a simple majority vote.

“The ruling is what the governor predicted in his veto letter last year,” Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.

The state attorney general’s office said it was reviewing possible next steps. “Today’s decision was not a surprise,” spokesman Aaron Sadler said.

Bettina Brownstein, who represented two doctors who perform abortions at a Little Rock clinic, said the 12-week ban was “demeaning to women.”

“The law never should have been passed in the first place, it’s so unquestionably unconstitutional,” she said. She said it was unlikely that Drs. Louis Jerry Edwards and Tom Tvedten would appeal the portion of the law requiring them to notify patients if a heartbeat is detected.

“Practically, in my opinion, it has very little effect. It’s duplicative of what doctors who perform abortions in Arkansas already have to do,” she said.

State Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, who sponsored the fetal heartbeat bill, said he was encouraged that that portion of the measure was upheld.

“Now, anyone who presents for abortion in our state, they’re going to be given an opportunity to know if there’s a living heartbeat in their womb, and that is a win for the pro-life movement,” Rapert said. “When people have to face the reality that there’s a living heartbeat in their womb, that will make them rethink about taking the life away from their baby.”

The 12-week ban had included exemptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother and highly lethal fetal disorders. Legislators last year also passed a separate ban at 20 weeks, based on the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain at that point.

Choice advocates protest closure of 2 rural reproductive health clinics in Texas

Two reproductive health clinic closures were announced in rural Texas this week — shutdowns resulting from passage of the state’s House Bill 2. The clinics were the only reproductive health clinics in East Texas and the Rio Grande Valley and the closures disproportionately affect low-income women in the south and east of the state, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“The closure of Whole Women’s Health clinic is a tragedy for women in Texas and indicative of the cost when we allow politicians to use deceitful back-door tactics to rob us of our fundamental rights,” Ilyse Hogue, NARAL Pro-Choice America president said in a statement released late March 6. “The majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose the health care and reproductive options best for us, yet anti-choice lawmakers have run rough shod over that sentiment and now are endangering the lives of the state’s most vulnerable women.”

Nineteen clinics in Texas have closed since Texas lawmakers adopted new abortion restrictions last summer. Twenty-four clinics remain to serve a population of 26 million people, and more closures could happen after additional restrictions take effect later this year, according to The AP.

Lawmakers in HB 2 required all abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, all abortions to take place in a surgical facility and all women seeking abortion-inducing medications to make four clinical visits. Those rules made it impossible for the clinics in Beaumont and McAllen to stay open, Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, told the AP.

Heather Busby, the director of NARAL’s chapter in Texas, in a statement released on March 6, said, “Safe, legal options for women in need of abortion care are now non-existent in south and east Texas, and that is no accident. Anti-choice lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they pushed for the abortion restrictions in HB2 and these clinic closures are exactly the result they were seeking.”

Opponents to target Michigan anti-abortion law in 2014

Incensed Democrats and abortion rights advocates are vowing that Republican lawmakers overreached so much with new restrictions on abortion coverage in Michigan’s public and private health insurance plans that it will cost them in the 2014 elections.

A ballot drive to repeal or override the law is being considered. If enough signatures are collected, the statewide vote would coincide with November legislative races and keep the issue fresh in the minds of voters in 11 months.

While it’s not unusual for emotions to remain raw in the days immediately after passage of any abortion law, the GOP struck a nerve that critics say will resonate long after the holidays.

Democratic women in the male-dominated Legislature felt compelled to tell their own personal stories during the floor debates, in part because no committee hearings were held on the initiative that allows primary insurance plans to cover elective abortions only when a woman’s life is at risk. Starting in March and once policies renew, an optional rider will have to be bought in advance to cover all other abortions, including those resulting from rape and incest.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, in a heart-rending plea against the bill, disclosed that she had been raped. She said she woke up the day after the vote feeling down but her spirits were lifted with a barrage of supportive calls, emails and Facebook messages from Democrats and Republicans, women and men, those who live in Michigan and elsewhere.

“The vast majority of people in this state don’t want this ugly policy,” the East Lansing Democrat said. “A lot of them are extremely offended by it.”

Those who unsuccessfully lobbied majority Republicans to sidestep the initiative and let voters approve or reject it next year say internal polling is on their side.

Legislators voted for it despite some representing GOP-leaning districts where 60 percent to 70 percent of respondents were opposed, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed similar legislation a year ago, calling it an interference with the private marketplace and saying it would have been inappropriate to tell a rape victim that she needs to have extra insurance to terminate her pregnancy. But he had no say this time because it was a citizens’ initiative for which anti-abortion activists gathered more than 300,000 signatures.

“Abortion is not true health care and people who object will not have to contribute their own tax dollars or insurance premiums for elective abortions,” said Right to Life of Michigan president Barbara Listing.

GOP political strategist Jeff Timmer, a partner with The Sterling Corp. in Lansing, said the die is cast for a battle between forces on both sides of the abortion debate. But he questioned whether it will have much broader bearing next November, adding that in 1988 Michigan voters upheld a Right to Life-initiated law prohibiting public funding of abortion services for welfare recipients.

Republicans hope the federal health care law will prove unpopular in the elections. A thrust behind the abortion law is keeping taxpayer-subsidized plans on Michigan’s new insurance marketplace from covering abortions, an option for states under the federal health care law.

But the measure also applies to employer plans and coverage sold to individuals outside the exchange, something opponents say shows how extreme it is.

“This initiative injects the cold, bureaucratic hand of government into the room when women and their doctors are making medical decisions — very difficult and personal medical decisions,” said Rep. Kate Segal, a Battle Creek Democrat.

Supreme Court lets Texas anti-abortion law stay for now

A third of Texas’ abortion clinics will stay closed after the U.S. Supreme Court declined this week to intervene in an ongoing legal dispute over a tough new law that Planned Parenthood claims unconstitutionally restricts women’s rights.

At least 12 Texas abortion clinics have been closed since October, after a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals allowed the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital to take effect.

No more than 20 clinics were able to meet the new standard, and some women must travel hundreds of miles (kilometers) to obtain an abortion. All of the facilities that remain open are in metropolitan areas, with none in the Rio Grande Valley along the border with Mexico.

The Supreme Court’s decision isn’t the final say on the restriction. But it means that the law will remain in effect while Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit challenging it continues. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals plans to have a hearing in January on the lawsuit.

Texas is the nation’s second-most populous state, and an average of 80,000 abortions are performed there each year.

The Supreme Court’s decision came in an appeal of a decision from a 5th Circuit panel that said Texas could enforce the law at least until the panel can hold a hearing in January. The 5th Circuit’s ruling came after U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel blocked the provision, saying it served no medical purpose and created an illegal barrier for women seeking an abortion.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a sharply divided 5-4 opinion that abortion clinics had failed to prove that the 5th Circuit acted improperly. Writing for the minority, Justice Stephen Breyer said the better course would have been to block the law at least until the three-judge appeals panel issued its final ruling because some women will be unable to obtain abortions.

The five justices and three appeals court judges who sided with Texas are all Republican appointees. The four dissenting justices are Democratic appointees. Yeakel, who initially blocked the provision, is a Republican appointee.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry praised the Supreme Court action.

“This is good news both for the unborn and for the women of Texas, who are now better protected from shoddy abortion providers operating in dangerous conditions. As always, Texas will continue doing everything we can to protect the culture of life in our state,” Perry said.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the groups will continue the legal fight.

“This law is blocking women in Texas from getting a safe and legal medical procedure that has been their constitutionally protected right for 40 years. This is outrageous and unacceptable — and also demonstrates why we need stronger federal protections for women’s health. Your rights and your ability to make your own medical decisions should not depend on your ZIP code,” Richards said.

The Texas law on admitting privileges was part of a package of abortion restrictions that the GOP-controlled Legislature passed over the summer. The restrictions, which are among the toughest in the nation, gained notoriety when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis launched a nearly 13-hour filibuster against them in June.

Although several conservative states in recent months have approved broad abortion limits, the Texas ones were particularly divisive because of the number of clinics affected and the distance some women would have to travel to get an abortion.

The other states that are enforcing laws on admitting privileges are Tennessee and Utah. Courts have temporarily halted similar laws in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Expenses mount as Kansas defends anti-abortion laws

Kansas has paid more than $913,000 to two private law firms that are helping the state defend anti-abortion laws enacted since conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office, and such expenses appear likely to grow.

The attorney general’s office disclosed the figures in response to requests from The Associated Press. More than $126,000 in legal fees stem from two lawsuits filed this summer against restrictions enacted just this year.

Kansas has enacted sweeping limits on abortion and providers since Brownback took office in January 2011, though it hasn’t attempted to ban abortions in the earliest weeks of pregnancies, as Arkansas and North Dakota have. The newest Kansas restrictions, challenged in separate state and federal lawsuits this summer, block tax breaks for abortion providers and even govern what appears on their websites.

A state-court lawsuit is still pending against health and safety regulations approved in 2011 specifically for abortion clinics, but the state prevailed in a federal lawsuit against 2011 restrictions on private health insurance coverage for elective abortions. All of those cases have been handled by the firm of Thompson Ramsdell & Qualseth, of Lawrence.

A federal lawsuit against a 2011 law preventing the state from distributing federal family planning dollars to Planned Parenthood to provide non-abortion services is before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That case has been handled by Foulston Siefkin, the state’s largest law firm, with offices in Wichita, Topeka and Overland Park.

Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said Monday that the spending shows the Republican-dominated Legislature is more interested in “political posturing” on abortion than good financial stewardship. His organization provides abortions at a clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park and is involved in two federal lawsuits.

“It’s a travesty that Kansans are spending $913,000 on things that don’t benefit the state in anyway,” Brownlie said.

But abortion opponents contend abortion providers are to blame for the expenses because they’ve turned to the courts after losing support for their positions among voters.

“It’s a free country, and there’s a right to sue on anything,” Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Statehouse. “But, then, to try to blame us for the money involved in defending the lawsuits is ridiculous.”

The state has paid the Foulston firm more than $386,000 for its work on the lawsuit over the family planning funds for Planned Parenthood.

The Thompson firm has been paid more than $527,000, including more than $252,000 for defending the 2011 clinic regulations. The state paid the firm almost $149,000 for work on the successful defense of the health insurance law.

Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, called on state lawmakers to create a “culture of life” upon taking office. The Legislature already had strong anti-abortion majorities, but it efforts to restrict abortion were stymied by previous governors who’d supported abortion rights.

Some restrictions aren’t being enforced because of the lawsuits. But Culp and other abortion opponents have said the laws were written to survive court scrutiny – unlike in other states such as North Dakota, where lawmakers passed a law banning abortions as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

A federal judge blocked the North Dakota law, and legislators there set aside $400,000 to defend anti-abortion measures.

Texas lawmakers back at work, abortion restrictions back on agenda

The Texas Legislature is back, and so are more proposals to restrict abortions.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry has told lawmakers that he expects more anti-abortion laws during the 2013 session to work toward his goal “to make abortion at any stage a thing of the past.”

Anti-abortion activists have pledged to use every legal means possible to make obtaining abortions difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.

Last session, Perry signed into law two measures, one requiring doctors to conduct trans-vaginal sonograms before performing an abortion, and another banning groups that support abortion rights from participating in state-funded health programs.

This year he wants to further curtail when a woman can have an abortion, a law that courts have blocked in Georgia, Oklahoma and Arizona.

“We … need to better protect our most vulnerable citizens, the unborn, by expanding the ban on abortion to any baby that can feel the pain of the procedure, and putting in place common-sense oversights on clinics and physicians involved,” Perry told lawmakers on the opening day of the 2013 legislative session.

The so-called fetal pain bill relies on controversial claims that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation. Under current law, states can only ban abortions after 24 weeks.

Women’s rights activists point to scientific studies that find no evidence to support the claim. Tarrant County Sen. Wendy Davis opposes the effort to “chip away” at a woman’s right to choose.

“This bill, which is not grounded in sound science, represents just one more effort to intercede in decisions best made by a woman and her doctor,” Davis said. “Because these so-called small government advocates won’t acknowledge that a woman’s right to choose is the law of the land, they’re reduced to expanding government into women’s health care decisions.”

Lawmakers have passed similar bills in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Idaho, Alabama and Nebraska. But the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the law and federal judges in Georgia and Arizona have blocked enforcement of the measure there. The courts determined the laws infringe on a civil rights.

Janet Crepps, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the laws are part of a national anti-abortion strategy.

“We really disagree with the science and we feel this is nothing more than a sensational attempt to limit access to abortion based on bad science,” Crepps said, citing recent research as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “This is clearly part of an agenda to stop women from accessing abortion, and in Texas in particular, I think you’ve seen a very hostile Legislature against reproductive rights.”

The measure is just one of Texas Right to Life’s priorities for the 83rd Legislature. They also want to take away a judge’s authority to allow teenage girls, under certain circumstances, to have an abortion without their parent’s permission. They also want a ban on abortion coverage in insurance plans offered under the Affordable Care Act.

“Until our elected servants recognize that their first duty is to protect the life of each conceived human being, Texas Right to Life will not stop pushing for new Pro-Life laws,” the group said.

Ardent ant-abortion activist Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has introduced a bill that would make it more difficult for doctors to prescribe medications that induce abortions by adding a number of new requirements. The doctor must have a contract with another physician who promises to treat any emergencies arising from the drug, must designate a hospital where the emergency would be treated and the emergency physician must have admitting, gynecological, and surgical privileges at the hospital.

These requirements, among others in the bill, make it more difficult for doctors to prescribe these medications, particularly in rural areas. Advocates argue the law would protect women, but critics point out that medically-induced abortions rarely result in complications and the law is designed only to make abortions more difficult to obtain.

Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston, has introduced a bill that would prohibit doctors from performing abortions based on the gender of the child. The practice has been common in China, where parents are restricted from having more than one child, but public health reports give no indication it’s a problem in Texas.

Perry wants Texas to ban abortion after 20 weeks

Gov. Rick Perry threw his support this week behind legislation that would ban abortion in Texas after 20 weeks, the point at which he says a fetus can feel pain.

The Legislature, which will reconvene Jan. 8 for a 140-day session that occurs every two years, also will consider a bill that would require physicians who perform abortions to have an agreement with a nearby hospital, allowing them to admit a patient in case of an emergency, Perry said.

Perry said he would like “to make abortion at any stage a thing of the past,” but since that isn’t possible under federal law, the Legislature has an “obligation to end that kind of cruelty” when an unborn child can feel pain.

NARAL Pro-Choice Texas called the proposed legislation – which has not yet been submitted – “a cruel attempt by anti-choice extremists to curb access to care for women in the most desperate of circumstances.”

“The reality is that while most women welcome pregnancy and can look forward to a safe childbirth, for some, pregnancy can be dangerous,” the group said in a statement.

The proposed bill, however, should have widespread support in Texas’ largely Republican Legislature, which passed several laws in its 2011 session that made it more difficult to get an abortion, including a law that requires women to have a sonogram before going ahead with the procedure and putting in place a 24-hour waiting period between the time she sees a doctor and has the abortion.

Forty-one states already have laws banning abortions after 20 weeks, unless the woman’s health is in danger. Texas’ law would include a similar exception.

“We cannot and we will not sit idly by as we put our unborn through the agony” of ending their lives, Perry told a crowd of anti-abortion activists in Houston, where he announced his support for the bills.

Backed by the crowd’s occasional “Amens” and other praise, Perry vowed lawmakers would make every day of the 140-day session count when it comes to protecting life.

The legislation that would require physicians to have an agreement to admit patients to a hospital within 30 miles of their facility is designed to ensure abortion clinics are held to the same standard as all other medical centers in the state, Perry said.