The year unthinkable became the new normal in reproductive rights.

The Year Unthinkable Became the New Normal in Reproductive Rights

The Year Unthinkable Became the New Normal in Reproductive Rights

What women really think.
Dec. 16 2015 10:08 AM

The Year Unthinkable Became the New Normal 

It’s been a terrible year for abortion rights—but there is opportunity to be found amid the setbacks.

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Jemima Kirke, Mark Ruffalo, and Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Getty Images, courtesy ABC.

In this series, Double X writers look back on 2015’s flashpoint debates around gender and feminism as they played out in the spheres of reproductive rights, work-life balance, pop music, affirmative consent on campus, and more. Read all the entries here.

The past year might have been the worst for abortion rights in America since Roe v. Wade was decided 42 years ago. This was the year that David Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress infiltrated Planned Parenthood and turned shop talk about tissue donation into a propaganda coup, leading to five separate congressional investigations. Support for abortion bans without exceptions for rape or incest became the normative position among Republican presidential candidates. Purvi Patel, who tried to end her pregnancy by taking pills she ordered online, became the first American woman to be convicted of feticide (as well as child neglect) after an attempted self-abortion; she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. We learned that at least 100,000 women in Texas have tried to self-induce abortion. The total number of anti-abortion murders in America increased from eight to 11. And the Supreme Court accepted a case that could eviscerate Roe v. Wade.

Michelle Goldberg Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for Slate and the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose.

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“We are experiencing the culmination of a decades-long strategy by anti-choice extremists,” says Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. The far-right takeover of the GOP, a project that’s been underway for more than 40 years, is complete, meaning that a candidate like Marco Rubio can support forced childbirth for rape victims and still be seen as the mainstream alternative to his party’s conservative zealots. “Certainly in this presidential election, the rhetoric around women, around doctors who provide abortions, is worse than anything I’ve ever seen in mainstream politics,” says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

As the Republican Party has grown more extreme, it has expanded its reach in the states. 2015 was a milestone year for Republican control of state legislatures, with the party dominating both houses in 30 states, the highest number since at least 1978. Republicans used their electoral strength to pass 57 new state-level anti-abortion laws. Overall, there were more state anti-abortion laws passed in 2011 and 2013 than this year, but that’s partly because the most conservative states have already enacted so much of the anti-abortion movement’s wish list. “To some extent, they’re running out of things to do,” says Richards.

Several of the worst recent laws have now had time to come into effect. “Two or three years ago, there was this theoretical or political war on women,” says Richards. “Today it’s very real.” In Texas, HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion act that the Supreme Court will evaluate next year, has already resulted in the shutdown of more than half of the state’s clinics, due to the law’s cumbersome, arbitrary building and staffing requirements. If HB 2 is allowed to stand, another 10 of the state’s 19 existing clinics will likely close. As other states copy the law, Roe will become increasingly meaningless. “If what is passed in Texas is not considered an undue burden on women, basically anything goes,” says Richards. “If abortion is a constitutional right but you can’t access it unless you live in the right state, it’s not really a right.”

Having an abortion in Texas has already become much more difficult. “We’re seeing clients come to us who are having to drive hundreds of miles and stay overnight,” says Richards about her home state. “There’s been an elimination of access in cities that have had abortion providers for many years.”

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There is some evidence that, as a result, more women are attempting self-abortion. A recent study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project estimated that at least 100,000 women in the state have at some point tried to self-induce. The study’s authors write:

Since abortion became legal nationwide in 1973, women attempting to end a pregnancy on their own outside of a clinical setting … has generally been thought to be very rare. But there are two recent changes that may be leading the incidence of self-induction to increase. The first is the advent of onerous legislation imposing restrictions on legal abortion access. The second is the increasing preference for medication abortion, as well as the possibility of women accessing abortion-causing drugs on their own. 

As more women turn to self-abortion, some will run into a trap that the anti-abortion movement has set: feticide laws. These laws are framed as a means to protect pregnant women: Indiana, where Purvi Patel was convicted after she tried to induce her own late-term abortion, made feticide a Class B felony in 2009 after the shooting of a bank teller, Katherine Shuffield, who lost the twins she was carrying. Pro-choice forces have long warned that feticide laws, which are on the books in 38 states, would be turned against pregnant women. As legal abortion becomes harder to access, Patel’s case could become a terrifying precedent. Indeed, just last week, Tennessee’s Anna Yocca was arrested for attempted first-degree murder after trying to perform her own abortion at 24 weeks with a coat hanger. (As the Washington Post reported, Tennessee broadened its homicide statutes to include fetuses and embryos in 2012.)

“You can’t have forty years of describing what women do as killing without it having an impact on how the women who have abortions are treated,” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “What we’re witnessing is the culmination of a kind of group defamation.” Women who have abortions “are characterized as people who kill and dismember unborn children. What we do to people who we view as criminals is we punish them.”

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This is also true of organizations that are viewed as criminal. “With the increase in political hysteria and rhetoric against abortion providers and women who seek abortions, we have seen a huge uptick in harassment at our health centers,” Richards says. In the wake of the Center for Medical Progress videos, threats against Planned Parenthood have increased by a factor of nine, according to Richards. A Planned Parenthood in Pullman, Washington, that was set on fire in September is still closed. A New Hampshire clinic that was attacked in October by someone wielding a hatchet only reopened last week. And, of course, Robert Lewis Dear, the self-described “warrior for the babies,” killed three people during a rampage at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.

If there’s comfort for abortion rights supporters in the current moment, it mostly lies in the hope that abortion opponents have overstepped. “The idea that Ted Cruz could accept an endorsement from Troy Newman of Operation Rescue, who has openly advocated for state-sanctioned execution of abortion providers, and feel like there’s going to be no political cost to pay for that, is extraordinarily sobering, and it should be a wakeup call to everyone in this country,” says Hogue. “That said, I really, really think that therein lies an opportunity.”

It’s likely that the Republican nominee for president will support a total abortion ban; as we move into the general election campaign, the challenge to Texas’s abortion law, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, will come before the Supreme Court. With the right to abortion more imperiled than ever, pro-choice activists believe we’ll see pushback from the majority of Americans who don’t want to see abortion criminalized.

Both Richards and Hogue are encouraged by the growing frankness about abortion in popular culture, as people work to de-stigmatize a procedure that as many as 1 in 3 women will undergo in her lifetime. Glossy women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan have stepped up their coverage of reproductive rights. Celebrities have become more vocal: Jemima Kirke spoke publicly about having an abortion without anesthesia, which at the time she couldn’t afford, and Mark Ruffalo described learning about his mother’s illegal abortion. “I can’t stand aside with two beautiful young girls of my own and accept that we’re going to return to those days,” he said. Jessica Jones, Netflix’s critically acclaimed superhero noir, featured a subplot about a woman desperate for an abortion after being raped. Olivia Pope, the heroine of the Shonda Rhimes hit Scandal, had an abortion in the season finale. “That’s a sign there are folk willing to talk more openly about a topic that has been taboo for way too long,” says Richards.

There’s hope that this cultural shift will precipitate a political one. “This year is an inflection point,” Hogue says. “Change isn’t going to happen overnight. It took us a long time to get into the hole that we’re in vis-a-vis abortion and reproductive rights, but I think we’ll look back and see this as the year that the tide turned, where people started to realize what was at stake.”

She might be right. But when it comes to abortion, 2015 has been a lesson in how the once unthinkable becomes the new normal—and it’s happened with a Democrat in the White House. If a Republican wins the presidency next year, we will likely see 2015 as an entirely different sort of inflection point. Just because things are as bad as they’ve been in 40 years doesn’t mean they can’t get worse.