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News: Illegal Abortions Return

Women's reproductive rights are losing ground

By Margo Pierce · January 16th, 2008 · News
  Women�s reproductive rights are eroding under recent Supreme Court decisions, according to attorney Jennifer Branch.
Joe Lamb

Women�s reproductive rights are eroding under recent Supreme Court decisions, according to attorney Jennifer Branch.

Women have fewer reproductive rights now than when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe. v. Wade that banning abortions is unconstitutional under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

The court decided in 1973 that the procedure is legal because the government must respect all of a person's legal rights with regard to her life, liberty or property. However, that view -- that women have the right to make medical decisions about their health -- has been eroded by state and federal laws and more recent Supreme Court rulings, according to Jennifer Branch, a local attorney and reproductive rights advocate.

"Abortion's still legal, and most women have access to an abortion, but look at all the hoops they have to jump through," she says. "The criminalization of abortion is one of the big changes. This is the only surgical procedure in Ohio that is criminalized. In other words, a doctor will go to prison and lose her medical license if she doesn't follow these rules -- and there are a lot of them."

Ohio law assumes women are either too stupid or emotionally distraught to make their own decisions regarding pregnancy. One law requires a doctor to give his patient two booklets of information prepared by the state: One is about the development of a fetus, including illustrations, and the other is a list of options other than abortion available to women.

A more recent requirement is that a woman must visit a doctor to obtain "informed consent" 24 hours in advance of the procedure.

Only then are women allowed to get a legally performed abortion.

"That is a new step in the last couple of years in Ohio and that is a huge obstacle for abused women," Branch says. "It's hard enough to get away once to go to the clinic. Now you've got to get away twice."

The stigma of shame and cruelty that has been systematically used to vilify those seeking and performing abortions hasn't been limited to adult legislation. Minors who wish to get an abortion must now have parental permission.

That doesn't seem like a big deal: Minors can't do a lot of things unless mom or dad says it's OK. But this law has already been proven to have deadly consequences because illegal abortions are being used to avoid getting this permission.

"The last woman who had any publicity was the minor in Indiana who didn't want to let her parents know -- and she had an illegal abortion and she died," Branch says. "It's been a long time and so people aren't educated by the reality of what happens when abortion becomes illegal."

That girl was 17-year-old Becky Bell who, even on her deathbed, was too embarrassed to tell her parents what happened.

Thanks to a new federal law banning what is commonly referred to as a "partial birth abortion," we're that much closer to more illegal procedures, according to Branch.

"The Supreme Court held in April of '07 that the federal ban on that procedure is constitutional," she says. "That was a huge decision because the federal law does not allow an exception for the health of the woman. I'm sure the anti-abortion advocates are still jumping up and down about that decision because that clears the way for more winnowing away of reproductive rights because we no longer need to worry about the health exception for the woman.

"So what if a medical procedure would be so much safer for her? We don't care, we want to ban it for political reasons -- not for medical reasons, political reasons."

The medical procedure the law bans is actually called an "intact D&E." But calling it "partial birth abortion" politicizes the issue and opens the door for banning other procedures deemed unacceptable, Branch says.

"When (I) ... have some sort of medical problem, I turn to my doctor and ask a bunch of questions," she says. "What are my choices? What are the pros and cons? That is my right to talk to my doctor about my medical issue, and I decide which medical procedure I want. That should be true regardless of what the medical procedure is, whether that's breast cancer or pregnancy."

Is there a real threat to the end of legal abortions in our lifetime?

"Absolutely," Branch says. "This is a political fight. This is not about medicine. It's not about women being able to choose for themselves about what medical procedure to have. This is about politics."

In her lone dissent, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered a scathing criticism to her peers on this point.

"The term partial-birth abortion' is neither recognized in the medical literature nor used by physicians who perform second-trimester abortions," she wrote. "Throughout, the opinion refers to obstetrician-gynecologists and surgeons who perform abortions not by the titles of their medical specialties but by the pejorative label abortion doctor.' ... A fetus is described as an unborn child' and as a baby.' "

Ginsburg then points out how lawyers are second-guessing judgments by medical professionals as further evidence that the decision is founded more on opinion than fact.

"Today's decision is alarming," she wrote. "It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The reasoned medical judgments of highly trained doctors are dismissed as preferences' motivated by mere convenience.' "

Branch says she's reluctant to say Roe is on "life support," but her prognosis isn't good.

"There's a lot more coming along in terms of chipping away at Roe v. Wade," she says.

The Cincinnati chapter of the National Organization of Women hosts a 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade at 6 p.m. Jan. 22 at Wise Temple. For more information or to RSVP call 513-721-7635, ext. 255. Tickets are $20; for students, $15.


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