Dem Senators Aim to Block State Restrictions on Abortion

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee returned to an age-old issue that shows no indication of going away last week, considering legislation prohibiting states from implementing laws intended to hinder a woman’s access to an abortion.

The Women’s Health Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), aims to prohibit restrictions on what supporters characterize as a constitutionally protected practice "that are more burdensome than those imposed on medically comparable procedures."

The bill, which stands little chance of making it through the Republican-controlled House, seeks to overturn state-imposed mandatory waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds and mandatory counseling before a woman can obtain an abortion. It further prohibits states from establishing fetus viability measures used to stop a woman from undergoing the procedure after a certain number of weeks.

Baldwin told the committee Americans expect high-quality healthcare but women are seeing their access to abortion, guaranteed under a landmark 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, “come under attack.”

“Over the last 40 years, politicians across the country have been increasingly chipping away at the constitutional rights guaranteed under Roe v. Wade, which affirmed that women have the right to make their own, personal healthcare decisions and to have access to safe and legal reproductive care,” Baldwin said.

Many states, Baldwin said, “have been trying to turn back the clock on women’s access to quality care.” Over the last three years, states have enacted 205 provisions that restrict women’s access to safe abortion services, she said, and this year 13 states have adopted 21 new limits to access.

Last year in her home state of Wisconsin, Baldwin said, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill requiring a woman seeking an abortion, who already had to make two separate trips to a clinic, to undergo an ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure. The law also forced healthcare professionals to carry admitting privileges at a local hospital.

“If it was not for a federal judge temporarily blocking this provision, two of Wisconsin’s four abortion clinics would have been forced to shut their doors and others would have been forced to reduce services, leaving many Wisconsin women out in the cold,” Baldwin said.

Congress is compelled to act, Baldwin said, “to guarantee that American women will continue to have the freedom to make their own health care decisions and to have access to essential, quality women’s healthcare services.”

Abortion has remained one of the nation’s hot-button issues for more than 40 years, pre-dating Roe v. Wade. Despite occasional shifts in public opinion, popular opinion over the issue has actually changed very little. A CNN/ORC poll, conducted Jan. 31-Feb. 2, found that 27 percent of those responding said abortion should always be legal, 51 percent said it should be legal sometimes and 20 percent asserted it should never be legal. Only one percent had no opinion on the issue.

Baldwin’s proposal drew immediate objections from committee Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called it “extreme legislation.”

“It is legislation designed to eliminate reasonable restrictions on abortion that states across this country have put in place,” Cruz said. “It is legislation designed to force a radical view from Democrats in the Senate, that abortion should be universally available, common, without limit and paid for by the taxpayer. That is an extreme and radical view.”

That view, Cruz said, is shared “by a tiny percentage of Americans, although a very high percentage of activists in the Democratic Party, who fund and provide manpower politically. It is also a very real manifestation of a war on women, given the enormous health consequences that unlimited abortion has had damaging the health and sometimes even the lives of women.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told the committee that the legislation endeavors to “strip away from elected lawmakers the ability to provide even the most minimal protection for unborn children, at any stage of their pre-natal development.”

Tobias asserted that an abortion procedure should be treated differently because no other procedure involves the purposeful termination of a potential life.

“The great majority of Americans do not believe that abortion is ‘just another medical procedure,’ or that removing an unborn child is equivalent to removal of a malignant tumor,” Tobias said. “The elected representatives of the people have chosen, in many jurisdictions, to enact laws that are based on whole or in part on recognition that abortion is different precisely because every abortion stops a beating heart.”

But Blumenthal, a committee member and the bill’s co-sponsor, asserted that the bill is about “stopping laws that purport to be about health, when really they interfere with the doctor-patient relationship and have the very practical effect of harming women and their constitutionally protected rights.”

"Our goal is to stop politicians from playing doctor,” he said.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the committee that the Women’s Health Protection Act would serve to “enforce and protect a woman’s right and access to safe, legal abortion care no matter what state she lives in.”

Many of those opposed to abortion, Northup said, are “seeking to make an end run around public opinion and the Constitution itself.”

“They have resorted to obfuscating their true agenda by pushing laws that pretend to be about one thing but are actually about another,” she said. “They claim these laws are about defending women’s health and well-being, and improving the safety of abortion care—but they most assuredly are not. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are advanced by politicians, not by doctors, often based on model legislation written by explicitly anti-abortion groups.”

The Blumenthal-Baldwin bill would “prohibit states from singling out reproductive health care providers with oppressive requirements that grossly exceed what is necessary to ensure high standards of care and that apply to no similar medical practices,” Northup said. “True health and safety laws that apply to similarly situated medical care would be maintained, while dangerous regulations passed under pretext that cut off access to abortion care and endanger women’s health and lives would be prohibited.”