Feb. 7, 2005 – The 32nd anniversary of the US Supreme Courtâ€™s landmark Roe v. Wade abortion legalization decision has been followed by a flurry of legislative activity on both sides of the aisle. For their part, Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill to increase access to family planning services and contraception. Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing a bill to criminalize those who help minors obtain out of state abortions and another to inform women that fetuses experience pain during abortions.
Seeking to overcome their perceived disadvantage in shaping the countyâ€™s moral agenda, Senate Democrats touted their introduction of the Prevention First Act (S. 20) as a way to reduce the number of abortions sought by women in the US.
Rather than offer an explicit argument that women have a right to utilize birth control, the Prevention First Act calls for increased access to family planning services and birth control, including emergency contraception, as a means to combat the country's rate of 19 million annual sexually transmitted disease infections and 3 million unwanted pregnancies.
"The United States has the highest rate of unintended pregnancies among all industrialized nations," said minority leader Senator Harry Reid's (D- Nevada). "Half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended and nearly half of those end in abortion. By increasing access to family planning services, Democrats will improve women's health, reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies, and reduce the number of abortions, all while saving scarce public health dollars."
Staunch opposition from the Christian Right is expected, as the billâ€™s earlier incarnation -- the "Putting Prevention First Act," as it was called last session -- faced fierce denunciations from conservative religious groups.
"This sex-drenched omnibus bill steamrolls several bad ideas from Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion entities into one big promiscuity-promoting nightmare," said American Life Leagueâ€™s STOPP (Stop Planned Parenthood) national director Ed Szymkowiak stated in a June press release about the earlier measure. "This is a prescription for promiscuity, sexually transmitted disease and abortion."
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) said in a press statement, "Improving access to contraception should be a shared national goal... access to family planning services is a human right and an essential tool in protecting public health. For most women, including women who want to have children or already have them, contraception is not optional -- it is a basic health care necessity."
In contrast, Republican senators offered two other pieces of legislation regarding reproductive freedom. Declaring "a wonderful opportunity for us to work together on an issue that is pro-woman, pro-child, and pro-life," Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) urged Democrats seeking to soften their position on abortion to join with 32 co-sponsors in support of the provocative Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act (S. 51).
The bill would require abortion providers to offer women who are more than twenty weeks pregnant "pain-reducing drugs" for the "unborn child." The provider would be required present a scripted statement informing the patient that the Congress "has determined that at this stage of development, an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain" and requires "the woman to explicitly either request or refuse the administration of pain-reducing drugs to the unborn child" on a decision form to be kept on record for an as yet undetermined period.
Anesthesia is used on prenatal patients undergoing surgery. Brownbackâ€™s bill argues this protocol is evidence that "certain stimuli" cause a physical reaction in fetuses â€“ responses that should be construed as experiencing pain.
But critics of the bill say that it takes a scientific controversy over whether fetuses can feel pain and paints it as fact in an attempt to limit abortions. "The bill is trying to cause alarm in women who would choose an abortion procedure," maternal-fetal specialist Dr. Hytham Imseis told WomensEnews.org. Imseis also speculated that the bill may effectively restrict womenâ€™s access to abortions because the procedure requires anesthesia to be administered directly into the fetus with an ultrasound-guided needle. "The number of folks who can do that is very limited," he said.
The billâ€™s opponents also take issue with another premise of the legislation: that 20 weeks is counted from fertilization â€“ when the sperm and egg join -- rather than implantation, when the cluster of cells known as a blastocyst attaches to the uterine wall. This period of up to two weeks is considered crucial not just philosophically but also because if implantation is believed to be the starting point, then halting a pregnancy in the pre-implantation period would be considered contraception rather than abortion.
Though many anti-choice groups have endorsed the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, some oppose it, saying that the bill condones abortions. "At its roots, the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act ultimately establishes the legitimacy of abortion in federal law, and is therefore flawed legislation," Judie Brown, president of American Life League, told MichNews.com, a conservative news website. "The bottom line is, abortion is never acceptable in any circumstance. Legislation that even tacitly acknowledges a 'right' to abortion cannot be considered a pro-life measure."
Perhaps even more controversial is another bill re-introduced by Republicans that would criminalize the act of escorting a pregnant minor across state lines for an abortion. The Child Custody Protection Act (S. 8), opposed by Democrats since its initial introduction to the Congress in 2002, would punish adults who help young women seeking out-of-state abortions, if the woman has not complied with her home state's parental notification laws. Escorts are exempt from punishment if the girl's pregnancy puts her life or health at risk, or if there was a "reasonable" belief that parental consent had been granted.
In a July hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) argued that the bill was needed not only to strengthen parental rights and state law, but to protect "confused and frightened young girls" who could be coerced into defying such laws and "led into what will likely be a hasty and potentially ill-advised decision" by adult "sexual predators."
Womenâ€™s and civil rights groups strongly oppose the Act, which they have dubbed the "Teen Endangerment Act," and argue that if made into law, the bill would impose undue restrictions on girlsâ€™ right to legal and safe abortions, endanger teenagersâ€™ health, and punish adults for helping "young women in need."
"This dangerous piece of legislation, if enacted, would seriously threaten the health and welfare of the young women of America," said Laura W. Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a June press statement. "At a time when they need support and assistance the most, this measure seeks to punish teenagers. Those adults that seek to help them should not be made into criminals."
Thirty-four states have laws that require young women to either notify or gain consent from one or both parents before obtaining an abortion, according Planned Parenthood. Abortion rights groups have long railed against such parental consent and notification laws, accusing their backers of attempting to legislate parent-child relationships. They point to studies showing that even in states without laws mandating that children inform their parents, the overwhelming majority of teenagers do involve one or both parents in a decision to have an abortion.
The ACLU argues that in cases when minors do not inform their parents about obtaining an abortion, there is generally a "valid reason." For instance, they cite an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report that reads, "One third of minors who do not inform parents already have experienced family violence and fear it will recur." The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 57,000 pediatricians that says it is "committed to the attainment of optimal physical, mental, and social health and well being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults."
The AAP document, entitled "The Adolescentâ€™s Right to Confidential Care When Considering Abortion," is a survey of the existing data relevant to parental involvement in teenagersâ€™ decisions regarding reproductive health care. It also states that "research on abusive and dysfunctional families shows that violence is at its worst during a family memberâ€™s pregnancy" and based on the available information concludes that "although parental involvement in minorsâ€™ abortion decisions may be helpful in many cases, in others it may be punitive, coercive, or abusive."
Pro-choice groups say that in almost all cases where a minor does not inform her parent of a decision to obtain an abortion, she will involve another adult, such as grandparents, siblings, or other extended family members; clergy, teachers, social workers, or other counselors; and supportive friends, in her decision, and someone other than a parent will typically accompany her to the medical facility where the procedure is to be performed.
"[The Child Custody Protection Act] harms young women by its failure to recognize the importance of other family members and trusted adults in a young woman's life," writes the Center for Reproductive Rights in a briefing paper. "[The Act] would force young women to choose between not receiving assistance from these supportive adults in traveling across state lines for an abortion or risk exposing those adults to criminal liabilities, including jail time and fines."
The National Right to Life Committee, an organization founded in response to the US Supreme Court decision to legalize abortions nationwide, supports the notification bill. In its own briefing paper on the topic, the organization argues that allowing people to bypass parental notification and consent laws endangers the health of pregnant minors and makes it easier for older men to force their teenage partners to obtain an abortion in order to cover up evidence of statutory rape.
"The taking of an underage girl out of state for an abortion by someone who may have no knowledge of her prior medical or psychological history poses many dangers which could be avoided through involvement of her parents," writes the Committee. "Once the girl returns home, she may suffer physical complications from the abortion. If the parents are aware that their daughter has had an abortion, their knowledge may prove key to ensuring that the young girl receives treatment in a timely fashion with the onset of symptoms."
But Nancy Northup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press statement: "This bill is not about protecting minors -- its purpose is to make it more difficult for minors to obtain abortions by threatening to punish trusted adults to whom they turn for help. Those who feel they cannot involve their parents will go to any lengths to avoid doing so. As a result of [the Child Custody Protection Act], some will be forced to travel to a distant clinic alone, seek risky alternatives, or carry unwanted pregnancies to term."
Groups opposing the Act criticize the legislation for making caring adults into criminals, and say it will unconstitutionally render more dangerous the act of a woman exercising her right to reproductive choice. "The Constitution prohibits the government from attempting to deter a constitutionally protected activity by increasing the danger of engaging in that activity," the ACLU said in a statement.
"Knowing that anyone who helps them obtain an out-of-state abortion would risk arrest and imprisonment, many young women would be forced by this legislation to travel alone across state lines," continued the ACLU statement. "Some abortions involve surgical procedures that may not permit a young woman to drive home, often over long distances, by herself... Clearly, it is in the best interests of young women for caring, responsible adults to accompany them to an abortion provider and to escort them home after the surgery."