By Molly M. Ginty
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Activists warn that Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy like never before. Nov. 4 ballot measures would require parental notification before an abortion in California; give fertilized eggs full legal status in Colorado; and ban most abortions in South Dakota.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Teens will have to tell their families if they are pregnant, even if it is caused by incest and even if their parents are abusive.
A fertilized egg will have the same legal rights as a grown adult.
And the vast majority of abortions will be banned in a state where reproductive rights have already been severely restricted.
That's what will happen if anti-choice ballot measures pass Nov. 4 in California, Colorado and South Dakota, respectively.
"Initiatives in these three states could have a huge impact not only on local women, but on women across the country," says Celine Mizrahi, legislative counsel for the domestic legal program of the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City.
If one or all of these measures pass, it could lead to similar initiatives in other states and a Supreme Court case that triggers the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that guarantees abortion rights on the federal level, trumping state restrictions.
If Roe is reversed, 21 states are likely to ban abortion and nine others are likely to curtail it, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights' 2007 report "What If Roe Fell?"
Pro-choice activists warn that the Supreme Court's 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart decision upholding a federal ban on a specific abortion procedure with no exception to protect women's health has left Roe more endangered than ever before. They also express concern that these ballot measures, if successful, will be copied in other states.
In 2006, South Dakota voters rejected a proposal to ban all abortions except those to save a woman's health. This year's Measure 11 has been reworked to make nominal exceptions for rape, incest or threats to a pregnant woman's life or health.
A Mason-Dixon poll of 800 voters conducted Oct. 13-15 found support evenly divided for Measure 11, with 44 percent in favor, 44 percent opposed and 12 percent undecided. The margin of error is 3.5 percent.
Measure 11's definition of a threat to a woman's health or life is unclear, according to legal analysts.
"Health care providers in South Dakota will likely be too afraid to test the measure's limits and see which health conditions fall within its health exceptions," says Eve C. Gartner, deputy director of litigation for the Washington-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Violating the measure would likely result in felony charges and 10 years' jail time for doctors, and opponents worry this will lead South Dakota physicians--already required to tell patients that abortion increases "suicide ideation"--to refuse to perform abortions under any circumstances.
On Oct. 15, an internal memo from the Sanford Health system--based in Sioux Falls and one of the largest health care providers in South Dakota--was leaked to the press. It concluded that doctors may be forced to choose between committing a felony or subjecting pregnant women to medical risks.
"Measure 11 was specifically designed to breed a case that goes to the Supreme Court in an attempt to defeat Roe," says Celine Richards, Planned Parenthood's director. "If we don't defeat it, we will likely see litigation shortly after the election."
South Dakota has only one abortion clinic, run by Planned Parenthood, which annually provides 650 abortions to South Dakota women and 100 abortions to women from neighboring states.
California's ballot initiative would require a woman under 18 to notify her parents before having an abortion, and wait 48 hours between the time of notification and the procedure.
An Oct. 22 poll by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California found 44 percent of California voters supporting the measure, 52 percent opposing it and 4 percent undecided, with a 3 percent margin of error.
While essentially similar to parental-notification measures that California voters rejected in 2004 and 2006, the new amendment has been changed to allow teens to notify an adult family member (such as a grandmother or aunt) if she decides that telling her parents is not viable.
"The revised measure seems like it has been softened, but is worded so parents will eventually find out about a teen's pregnancy and abortion," says Richards. "If the teen goes to another family member, this must go on legal record, and the parents must face charges of abuse. When they are investigated, they will discover the cause."
Proposition 4 contains no requirement for counseling or for help from the alternate family member. Opponents fear it will spur frightened teens to take desperate measures to end their pregnancies. They say it not only threatens California teens, but those who travel from neighboring Arizona and Nevada to evade parental-notification laws.
If Proposition 4 is passed, warn legal analysts, it could not be overturned by filing legal challenges. Instead, another election would be required.
The Colorado measure would alter the state constitution to define human life as beginning "with the moment of fertilization," giving full legal rights to the mass of cells formed immediately after sperm and egg meet.
An Oct. 6 Denver Post poll found 48 percent of Colorado voters opposed, 30 percent in favor and 22 percent undecided, with a 4 percent margin of error. Gov. Bill Ritter, an anti-choice Democrat, called the measure "bad policy, bad medicine and bad law."
Legal analysts from reproductive rights groups say the amendment would ban stem cell research; in vitro fertilization; and the IUD, emergency contraception and regular birth control pills because these methods can potentially dislodge a fertilized egg from the uterine lining. The measure would make it illegal to terminate a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy in the fallopian tubes.
It could also be used to give property rights to an unborn fetus, or possibly hold a woman accountable for manslaughter if she fails to eat well or engages in extreme sports then has a miscarriage, says Planned Parenthood's Gartner.
"If this measure were enacted, terminating a pregnancy would be tantamount to murder even in cases of rape, incest or health threats," she says. "This measure would impact literally thousands of different laws, having enormous consequences."
Pro-choice activists are flocking to California, Colorado and South Dakota to represent major women's rights groups such as Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Washington-based National Organization for Women, and the Feminist Majority Foundation, based in Arlington, Va.
They're also coming from grassroots groups within the states themselves: California's Campaign for Teen Safety, Colorado's No on 48 Campaign and South Dakota's Campaign for Healthy Families. All three are broad-based coalitions of women's advocates, health care providers and legal professionals.
"Hundreds of thousands of volunteers are fighting these initiatives in small ways like talking to neighbors and large ways like taking time off work to travel to these states and help out," says Melody Drnach, vice president of action for NOW. "Voters may not believe that Roe could ever be overturned. But these measures could very well set the stage for that."
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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