Coercion and Reproductive Justice

An essential piece of the reproductive justice and sexual rights movement is the right of all women to make reproductive choices free from coercion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, coercion in any form is wrong and compromises choice. Coercion violates women’s right to decide freely if and when to have a child and the right to have the government respect her decision.

The Guttmacher report condemns coercion in the form of U.S. state legislatures passing increasingly restrictive abortion restrictions to keep women from ending an unwanted pregnancy. Parental notification or consent, mandatory waiting periods, and inaccurate and biased counseling exist under the guise of “preventing coerced abortion”. Rather, these TRAP laws aim not so much to inform women about the abortion procedure, as to dissuade them from choosing an abortion in the first place.

Increasingly, these laws prevent women from making decisions about how and when to give birth, posing a risk to all pregnant women, including those who want to stay pregnant.

Roe v. Wade gave women the right to choose abortion. Roe v. Wade also gave women the right not to choose abortion.

In the United States, a dark history of forced sterilization and present day controversies about the rights of the disabled remind us that as much as women have a freedom to abortion, if she chooses to continue a pregnancy, she has the equal right to do so.

Coerced abortion occurs in many forms. In January 2014, a Florida man was sentenced  to nearly 14 years in prison for tricking his pregnant girlfriend into taking Cytotec, a brand-name version of misoprostol, which causes miscarriage. Further complicating the issue, he was initially charged with first-degree murder under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, punishable by life in prison, but he pleaded guilty to lesser charges of product tampering. The fetus was estimated to be at seven weeks.

In 2013 in Texas, a pregnant 16 year old girl claimed her parents were pressuring her to have an abortion when she wanted to continue the pregnancy and get married. When the pregnancy was confirmed, the teenager’s father allegedly became angry and insisted that she have an abortion and it was his decision.  Texas is one of the states that requires parental or judicial permission for a minor to obtain abortion; in this case, the minor had to obtain judicial permission not to have an abortion.

Coerced abortion compromises reproductive justice and often results from broader issues such as domestic and sexual violence, birth control access and tampering, economic disadvantage, education expectations, and religious convictions. Abortion is not the problem. The prevention of choice is the problem.

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The Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013

In honor of International Women’s Month, the Ci3/Section blog is proud to present a series of posts from its staff, supporters and constituents. Below, Section project assistant Sara Newton writes about the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013.

As part of  International Women’s Month, this series of blog posts not only celebrate women’s achievements, but also remind us that the battle for equality is not finished. It’s 2014, and women are still paid less than their male counterparts, are still disproportionally represented in business and political leadership positions, and despite the passing of Roe v. Wade 41 years ago, women still face harmful and unnecessary barriers to receiving medical care. The Women’s Health Protection Act aims to defend all women’s right to basic sexual healthcare in a social climate that constantly politicizes women’s health and bodies. This chipping away of a woman’s constitutional right to decide if and when to have a child is one of our unfinished battles.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, more abortion access restrictions have passed between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire previous decade. This means that 56 percent of women–more than half of the female population in the United States–now live in states considered hostile to their health and rights.

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Image: guttmacher.org

Anti-choice politicians and lobbying groups continue to pass bills that curtail the constitutional guarantees of Roe v. Wade. Even though a state cannot prevent a woman from having an abortion before the fetus is viable outside the womb (20 to 24 weeks), state legislatures have found ways to make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to access abortion services. These bills have misnomers of “protecting women’s health” with the true objective of preventing abortion access. This strategy has led to the closing of clinics nationwide, forcing providers to obtain(elusive) hospital-admitting privileges, forcing women to view ultrasounds, requiring biased and inaccurate counseling, expecting women to find the time and money to attend multiple appointments and observe waiting periods, and arbitrary clinic reconstructions.

In response to these ploys, in November 2013, Democrat Senators and Representatives led by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013 (WHPA), which would prohibit states from passing Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws.

If enacted, WHPA would preempt state efforts to enact measures like heartbeat bills and fetal pain legislation by requiring states to first meaningfully prove that these regulations do protect women’s health as they claim. According to the WHPA, any legitimate connection has yet to be proved as TRAP laws “…do not advance the safety of abortion services and do nothing to protect women’s health. Also, these restrictions interfere with women’s personal and private medical decisions, make access to abortion more difficult and costly, and even make it impossible for some women to obtain those services.”

WHPA notes that closing clinics not only prevents accessing safe and legal abortion, but further prevents women from accessing basic sexual and reproductive healthcare, “including contraceptive services, which reduce unintended pregnancies and thus abortions, and screenings for cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections. These harms fall especially heavily on low-income women, women of color, and women living in rural and other medically underserved areas.”

WHPA also includes language that prevents regulating abortion providers differently from providers of “other medically comparable procedures” or requiring abortion facilities to meet standards not required of “facilities where medically comparable procedures are performed.”

WHPA highlights what pro-choice advocates and abortion providers already know: TRAP laws do nothing to protect women’s health, rather they are purposefully burdensome to women and only increase her waiting time, cost, and health risks. These restrictions do not rely on scientific or medical studies, nor do they prevent abortion. A recent study found that 98.4 percent of  women who saw their ultrasound still chose to have an abortion. Closing clinics only drives women to seek unsafe or self-induced abortions, as has been seen in Texas, where some of the most restrictive legislation has passed.

It is unlikely that the WHPA bill will pass the GOP-controlled House. But as January 22 marked the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which confirmed every woman’s constitutional right to make medical decisions without interference, it is a timely reminder to support the ongoing fight for reproductive justice.

Tell Congress to enact WHPA by taking action here.

Sara Newton received her BA in Writing from Indiana Wesleyan University and her MA in Development Studies from University of Melbourne, Australia. Before joining the Section staff full-time, she volunteered with the Policy program for several months, and has been a regular contributor to the Ci3/Section blog.