(WOMENSENEWS)--Alarmed by this year's barrage of attacks on reproductive rights and the cost to women's health, a longstanding women's rights advocacy organization is connecting female state lawmakers to push back through their own legislatures.
In July the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., held a strategic "convening" for 18 legislators representing 15 states. Some participants came from Kansas, Utah, Arizona and South Dakota; places where reproductive rights are under heavy assault.
The group of 18 made its first mark Oct. 18 by releasing a resolution to declare Jan. 22 through Jan. 28 a national awareness week for reproductive rights and to introduce the measure in their next legislative sessions.
The resolution notes that the United States has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality among all developed nations and that racial and ethnic health disparities are particularly pronounced in reproductive health.
Provisions of the resolution--such as funding for programs and how to implement the awareness week--are left up to individual legislators.
Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies, a 39-year-old policy group, said the July kickoff gathering provided the women with the important chance to simply get to know one another.
"When they're meeting with their constituents they're in quite a different role than when they're planning with colleagues," said Wolfe in a recent phone interview.
The center now serves as the "national staff" for the newly formed network, said Wolfe. It will help provide participating legislators with a sounding board and help them coordinate their efforts.
Wolfe expects that many legislatures will refuse to pass the resolution for fear of negative backlash in an increasingly anti-choice political environment. But she hopes non-legislative advocates will embrace the week as well.
"I think it could be a rallying cry and could give people something to stand behind," she said.
Hope for Endorsements
The Center for Women Policy Studies is hoping to gather as many endorsements as possible from legislatures, organizations and individuals.
Alaska State Rep. Beth Kerttula, one of the 18 lawmakers who attended the July gathering and endorsed this week's resolution, said pro-choice advocacy is needed at the state and local levels since support for choice is weakening at the national level and many states are staging anti-choice offensives.
"I think Congress is in a real gridlock in some of these issues," Kerttula said in a phone interview with Women's eNews. "States are becoming more powerful and are pushing the boundaries on the constitutions."
The group would like to see Reproductive Awareness Week recognized nationwide.
Kerttula says that even if the resolution fails in her own state, she hopes it will spark a dialogue within her constituency. "It was always my goal to make sure that people had the real information, so that they could make a better decision and not just make it on rhetoric."
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 358, which supporters are calling the "Protect Life Act" and opponents are dubbing the "Let Women Die Act." It is an amendment to the Affordable Care Act--popularly known as health reform--and includes a provision allowing hospitals to deny women a life-saving abortion. It also prohibits federal funds from being used to cover any part of a health plan that includes abortion services.
The final vote was 248-173, with no Republicans voting against it, and 11 Democrats crossing the line to support the bill.
Though the bill is not expected to pass in the Senate, some women's rights activists see it as a call to action.
Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women, a consortium of policy and advocacy groups based in New York, is urging members and followers to contact local representatives and denounce the bill as a human-rights violation.
Intensified Anti-Choice Efforts
As of June this year, states enacted 162 new provisions related to reproductive health, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based policy and research center. Of those new laws, 49 percent seek to restrict access to abortion, a near doubling of 26 percent in 2010.
Eighty abortion restrictions were enacted this year, more than triple enacted in 2010 and double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005.
Planned Parenthood has faced 15 legal battles this year. "Certainly more than in the past," Mimi Liu, a staff attorney at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in an e-mail.
Ohio State Sen. Charleta Tavares said participants at the July gathering have continued to communicate and that is helping them be more proactive, rather than always reactive.
"It's useful to hear about what's happening in other states; both (the) strategies employed by colleagues and strategies used against those of us working towards women's rights and reproductive health rights," Tavares said in a phone interview.
One of Tavares's goals coming out of the July meeting was to have the Department of Health and Human Services include contraceptives as part of preventive health under health reform.
She introduced a resolution in Ohio to that effect and in August the department classified contraceptives that way, which is significant because it means better coverage by health plans. "We're happy to say that they were included," she said.
In the next year Tavares hopes to push increased regulation on crisis pregnancy centers, clinics where women are sent for counseling when seeking an abortion that are often run by anti-choice advocates.
She also plans to promote adequate reproductive care in rural towns and inner-city neighborhoods of Ohio that are currently underserved.
Kansas State Rep. Barbara Bollier, a retired physician who belongs to the group, doubts the reproductive-awareness resolution will pass in her state. But like Alaska's Kerttula, Bollier hopes the initiative will spark dialogue.
"I think it's a positive step to identify specific areas where we're falling short in our country," she said in a phone interview. "Health care should be reserved to be between the doctor and the patient, and my goal is to stop legislators playing the medical game."
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Maura Ewing is a Brooklyn-based writer and an editorial intern at Women's eNews.
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