September/ October 2001
Title: “The Quiet War on Abortion”
Author: Barry Yeoman
Faculty Evaluator: Greta Vollmer
Student researcher: Kara Stout
A quiet war against abortion rights is being conducted by many local governments in the United States. Cities and counties are placing repressive legal restrictions on abortion providers under the guise of women’s health laws. These restrictions can include: width of hallways, jet and angle type of drinking fountains, the heights of ceilings, and how long one must wait between initially seeing the doctor and when the procedure can be performed.
These legal ordinances are known as TRAP laws. TRAP stands for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. These laws attempt to restrict all aspects of the physical environment related to an abortion. While called women’s health laws, they are seldom applied to any medical facility other than abortion clinics. The goal of TRAP laws is to discourage and make extremely difficult a woman’s legal right to choose abortion. In the words of one right-to-life leader, the idea is to create an environment “where abortion may indeed be perfectly legal, but no one can get one.”
TRAP laws have been passed in several states including Utah, Connecticut, Louisiana, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Alabama, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, and Texas. Complying with TRAP laws can be very expensive. Remodeling modifications such as hallway width, angle and jet types for drinking fountains, ceiling height, doorway width, counseling room dimensions, air-circulation rates, outdoor weed-control practices, and separate changing rooms for men have resulted in the closing of cash-poor abortion clinics. Sometimes the clinics are closed only temporarily, but often the repairs are simply too expensive and the clinic is forced to cease operating altogether.
In 1992, when the Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling established continued support for the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, a new stealthier strategy was shaped by pro-life campaigners. Right-to-life advocates began thinking about other ways to attack abortion rights that were not so overtly challenging to the Roe v. Wade decision. By claiming that abortions take place in dirty facilities and cause such illnesses as depression and breast cancer, right-to-lifers have subtly moved away from the moral and legal debate and into a nebulous realm of “women’s health.”
Dorinda Bordlee, a right-to-life advocate and staff counsel for Americans United for Life, says, “What’s good for the child is good for the mother. So now we’re advocating legislation that is good for women.” With this reasoning, anti-abortionist make laws sound plausible and even necessary. However, the dimensions of a counseling room will clearly not guarantee a safe and correct abortion. Counseling room size does not protect a woman’s health, but it does restrict the availability of abortions.
Louisiana’s newest anti-abortion law, known as the civil-liability law, would allow any woman who has had the procedure to sue the doctor for up to 10 years-not just for her own injuries, but also for “damages occasioned by the unborn child.” While still being challenged in court, this civil-liability law threatens the viability of clinics in the entire state of Louisiana.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly supported a woman’s right to abortion, but these laws are quietly taking that right away. If these laws remain unchallenged it may mean the end of legal abortions in the United States.
COMMENTS BY GRETA VOLLMER, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: The Supreme Court is only one vote away from overturning Roe v. Wade. This fact alone is disturbing. Yet in the meantime, abortion rights currently guaranteed by this critically important court case are being chipped away by restrictions and statutes implemented at the state and local levels. It is essential that the press continue to highlight all attempts to limit and constrain this fundamental right. The right to an abortion is moot if in fact a woman cannot find providers or services are targeted to such an extent by harassment through ordinance, such as the TRAP laws described in this article.
UPDATE BY AUTHOR BARRY YEOMAN: “The Quiet War on Abortion” was the first national magazine article detailing the myriad ways that pro-choice legislators and grassroots activists use legislation and lawsuits to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. It informed readers about a stealthy strategy that previously had flourished underground.
Few mainstream media outlets picked up the story. However, the article won Washington Monthly’s December 2001 Journalism Award. It was also highlighted by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation’s Daily Reproductive Health Report. Pro-choice organizations like the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the National Abortion Federation have used it as part of their public awareness campaigns. And various pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood of Mar Monte and the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion, feature it on their web sites. At California’s Humboldt State College, historian Gayle Olson-Raymer uses the article as part of the syllabus for her terrorism class.
Across the country, there have been recent court hearings on these abortion restrictions, but no new decisions. Several bills were introduced this year in statehouses across the country, but so far nothing has passed. Two harassment lawsuits against clinics, one in North Dakota and the other in California, concluded unfavorably for the pro-life activists, though appeals are still possible.