Leslie Wolfe of Center for Women Policy Studies

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pro-choice state legislators dodge threats and intimidation from anti-women’s rights groups as they try to hold the line on reproductive rights, reports a new study from the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. The new report is based on survey responses of 67 pro-choice legislators in 26 states.

“They are frequently the lone voices in their legislatures,” said Leslie R. Wolfe, president. “The ‘antis’ follow them in the halls. They face demonstrations in their districts, attacks in publicity materials, lies and distortions,” she added.

To underscore the importance of states in governing the real-life treatment of women’s reproductive health needs, the report’s release is timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in San Antonio, beginning August 11. Approximately 1,200 of the nation’s 7,424 state legislators will meet for four days, but with barely a whisper of reproductive rights on the agenda, said Wolfe.

The policy group’s report provides a peek inside the dynamics of the 2001 state legislative sessions, where social conservatives continued to push restrictive legislation on abortion and to seize upon the circumstances of low-income pregnant women.

Report Considers Situation in States a National Emergency

“These are dangerous times for reproductive rights at the state level,” the report states. “We consider it to be a national emergency,” added Wolfe.

Particularly unnerving was the frequency of attempts to redefine the fetus as a person, a back-door effort to eliminate women’s autonomy, said Wolfe.

She expressed concern that these legislative initiatives could eventually be responsible for overturning the key Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

“It is a strategy that will overturn Roe v. Wade if we don’t stop them,” she said.

Efforts to grant a fetus rights equal to those of a living person emerged in a variety of forms. One scheme would allow the prosecution of pregnant drug users for distribution of controlled substances to a “minor.” An Iowa proposal, not passed, would permit involuntary hospitalization of pregnant drug users. Other proposals would require medical providers to test pregnant women for drugs or HIV, all the while defining the fetus as a patient separate from the mother-to-be.

Karen Raschke, staff attorney for state programs at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, concurs that there are an especially large number of fetal rights proposals in the states. A total of 45 bills related to the fetus were introduced in states this year–“a big trend,” Raschke said.

Of the 10 states that added anti-choice legislation to their laws this year, two–Arkansas and Michigan–inserted language that gives a fetus the status of living persons.

The other states that adopted new anti-choice laws this year, said Raschke, are Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia.

Bans of So-Called Partial-Birth Abortion Remain Popular

The policy center survey found that 47 percent of respondents faced new efforts to pass “partial-birth abortion” bans, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision 14 months ago that nullified a comparable ban as unconstitutional. Anti-choice legislators in Maine introduced two new bills to ban second- and third-trimester abortion practices, something voters rejected in a statewide ballot in 1999.

Thirty-nine percent of legislators confronted proposals restricting minors’ access to abortion. In Nebraska, three bills were introduced to make an existing parental notification law more harsh.

Nearly one-third of the respondents had to deal with efforts to establish mandatory waiting periods, including Virginia, where a required 24-hour waiting period for abortion was enacted.

Over one-quarter of legislators fought attempted limitations on the use of mifepristone, the so-called abortion pill.

Some state proposals eliminated state health insurance funds for abortion. Others denied additional support to families on assistance if more children are born into the family. While some argue such measures increase the number of abortions, they remain a favorite measure of conservatives. Many pro-choice activists resist these so-called family caps because they are an attempt to control women’s reproductive choices, deprive infants of needed support and punish already impoverished families.

Other anti-choice efforts ranged from pushing “Choose Life” license plates to attempting to amend state constitutions with anti-abortion provisions or require doctors who perform abortions to list themselves in a publicly available database maintained by a state agency.

Pro-choice activists across the country managed to stop a large number of legislative anti-choice attempts to link breast cancer to abortion. Thirty-two bills on the topic were introduced, said Raschke, but none became law.

“They seem to think that if they throw enough darts at us, at least one will hit,” said one surveyed legislator.

Pro-Choice Won in Some States

Pro-choice legislators also celebrated a few victories this year.

Three states–Missouri, New Mexico and Texas–passed contraceptive equity laws requiring insurance companies to pay for contraception in prescription benefit plans. Insurers can opt out for religious reasons in these laws. Illinois adopted a new law requiring hospitals to tell rape victims about emergency contraception.

The surveyed pro-choice legislators pleaded for activist coalitions, full-time lobbyists, and grass-roots mobilization to become more visible. They expressed a strong desire for diverse activists, including women of color, immigrants and men.

“Find some pro-choice Republicans who will speak out,” advised one legislator.

Wolfe said the survey indicates that even when quiet or unsuccessful, state-level anti-choice organizations stand ready to “turn up the heat.”

Anti-choice forces in the states are “persistent,” commented one surveyed legislator.

“Their lobbyists are all-present,” another noted. “They hover in the halls and visit daily.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is a free-lance journalist who writes about reproductive rights.

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Center for Reproductive Law and Policy:

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