Abortion Rights: A Roundup of 2011's Most Extreme Attacks on Women's Right to Choose

  @ashleyportero on December 29 2011 4:32 PM
Abortion Debate
Lawmakers in Ohio have revived efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and limit abortion services in the final weeks of its legislative session. Reuters

In a year of political drama and partisan squabbles that almost shut down the federal government while leading to record-low congressional approval ratings, women's reproductive rights managed to come to the forefront of the national conversation time and time again. About 916 measures related to reproductive health and rights were introduced in state legislatures through March 31 alone, the Guttmacher Institute reports, while 162 new provisions were enacted by the states by the end of July.

Some of these laws have centered on enforcing abstinence-only sex education, while others have gone as far as allowing hospitals that receive federal funding to reject women in need of life-saving abortions.  

The following proposals are contenders for the most extreme attacks on a woman's right to choose that have been advocated by lawmakers in 2011.

Redefining Rape

In May, House Republicans -- along with 16 anti-abortion Democrats -- passed the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act , which aims to permanently cut off federal funding for abortion procedures through Medicaid and tax benefits. While the Hyde Amendment has long made exceptions in cases of incest or rape, the bill's proposed language initially replaced rape with forcible rape, a modifier that critics said could potentially alter the legal definition of rape by distinguishing it from sexual assault typically recognized as rape, such as statutory rape or drug-induced attacks that make victims unable to fight back against their assailant.

House Republicans agreed to remove the forcible rape provision from the legislation after an onslaught of pressure from liberal advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers. However, Mother Jones magazines reports that the GOP has used a sneaky legislative maneuver to ensure that the effect of the bill will remain the same, despite the changed language.

According to Mother Jones, the committee report for the bill -- reports that are analyzed by judges as evidence of congressional intent when they interpret what the law actually means -- states it will not allow the Federal Government to subsidize abortions in cases of statutory rape. So, even though the actual bill does not contain the language, courts ultimately still have the opportunity to exclude statutory rape-related abortions from eligibility for Medicaid coverage.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes the practice on Capitol Hill for Members of Congress and their staffs to use [committee] reports ... to try to manipulate the meaning of the language passed by Congress, Ann O'Leary, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley's law school, told the source. It is clear here that the committee report tries to narrow the meaning of rape.

Although the bill passed the House, the Senate has not taken up the measure, and is not expected to do so in the near future.

Banning Abortions Based on Race/Sex

In what some Republicans leaders tried to claim was a stalwart defense of American civil rights, in December Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., introduced a measure that would criminalize abortions based on race and sex. Known as the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Nondiscrimination Act of 2011 (PRENDA), the bill would also penalize medical providers who perform those procedures, although mothers would be protected from prosecution.

Franks, citing a 2008 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found that minority women have abortions at five times the rate of white women, as well as U.S. Census data that show certain populations have son-biased ratios, claimed the measure will end the genocide of minority fetuses while also protecting their civil rights.

This is the civil rights struggle that will define our generation, Franks said during a December hearing on the bill in the House subcommittee on the Constitution.

It is unclear how the law would be enforced, especially since there are no scientific data to indicate that American women are seeking abortions because of the race or sex of the fetus. In addition, only 5 percent of abortions take place after 16 weeks, when doctors can determine the sex of a fetus, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Instead, a report from the Guttmacher Institute found that most frequent reasons cited for receiving an abortion is that it would interfere with the mother's education, work or ability to care for dependents, in addition to not being able to afford a child and relationship problems with the child's father.

Heartbeat bill

In June, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a measure known as the heartbeat bill, which opponents argued would enforce the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the nation. House Bill 125, which has since been held up in the state Senate, would ban abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat, meaning women could be banned from receiving the procedure as early as six to eight weeks into a pregnancy -- before many women even know they are pregnant. The stalled bill does not include exceptions for victims of rape, incest or mental health of a woman and would force doctors to wait until a woman was actually in imminent danger of dying before being allowed to perform a life-saving abortion under the bill's threat to life exception.

Protect Life Act

In October, House Republicans also passed the Protect Life Act -- known among women's health advocates as the Let Women Die bill. Sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts, the legislation contains a provision to allow hospitals to refuse to perform abortions on women experiencing life-threatening pregnancies. The measure would apply to the nation's approximately 600 Catholic hospitals governed by the Catholic Health Association, which is regulated by bishops who prohibit abortions.

Under this bill, when the Republicans vote for this bill today, they will be voting to say that women can die on the floor of health care providers ... it's just appalling, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters after the House approved the measure in a 248-173 vote. I can't even describe to you the logic of what they are doing today.

The legislation, which has not been taken up the Senate, would also eliminate federal funding for health insurance plans that include abortion coverage, even though the Affordable Care Act already prevents federal money from covering abortion services offered by private insurance health plans.

Personhood Amendment  

Mississippians entertained the idea of passing a highly contested personhood amendment to their state constitution, which would have essentially banned abortions by declaring that life begins at the moment an egg is fertilized. Voters soundly defeated the ballot initiative in November. Personhood initiatives also have been proposed in states such as South Dakota, Georgia, Texas, Montana and Oklahoma.

The so-called personhood movement, advocated the Christian advocacy group Personhood USA, is particularly controversial since its language -- which defines a person as every human being, from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof -- could potentially be interpreted to ban methods of contraception such as intrauterine devices, the morning-after bill, and even hormonal birth control pills.

Following the amendment's Mississippi defeat, Personhood USA co-founder Keith Mason told the Associated Press the group intends to renew efforts to pass personhood legislation in the state. The group is also fighting to land similar initiatives on 2012 ballots in Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada, California and Montana.

Personhood legislation has also made its way to the U.S. Congress, although the measures have not received a vote. Under the Sanctity of Human Life Act, the federal government would define life as beginning at conception, while also granting constitutional rights to unborn fetuses. A similar bill proposed in the House and Senate, the Life at Conception Act, also applies 14th Amendment protections to all human beings beginning at fertilization.

Attacks on Planned Parenthood

The nation was only an hour away from a federal government shutdown in April after congressional Democrats and Republicans were at loggerheads over a GOP demand to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

The women's health provider has received federal funding under Title X since 1970, when President Richard Nixon, a Republican, signed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act into law.  

Anti-abortion Republicans have claimed Planned Parenthood uses federal funding toward providing abortion services, although Planned Parenthood -- which states that abortion procedures only comprise about 3 percent of the total services provided by the organization -- insists the federal funding it receives is not applied to abortions, as required by federal law.

FactCheck.org confirms that 35 percent of the patient care provided by Planned Parenthood centers involves contraception, while another 35 percent consists of sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, 16 percent consists of cancer screening and prevention, and 11 percent involves other women's/men's health services.

Congressional Republicans eventually dropped a demand to suspend Title X funding to Planned Parenthood in the face of a government shutdown, although they won the inclusion of a policy rider that bans Washington, D.C., from applying its own funds toward abortion services for low-income women.

Join the Discussion