Book Club: Crow After Roe

Crow After RoeA new book by Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo takes readers on a tour of a disaster. It was a catastrophe that swept through much of the Midwest but also shook states like Arizona, Idaho, and Mississippi. Its widespread effects raised numerous health concerns as it made its way through much of the country, and its repercussions are still felt today. Undoing the damage could take years.

The disaster was not natural, but political. The 2010 midterm elections saw a wave of Republican victories, giving state legislatures a new makeup and a new agenda. Reacting to a recently elected Democratic president who had called himself “a consistent and strong supporter of reproductive justice,” conservative lawmakers introduced one bill after another to limit access to reproductive health care — especially, but not exclusively, abortion.

The defeat of Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban is a timely reminder of what activists can accomplish.

In Crow After Roe: How “Separate but Equal” Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That (Ig Publishing, 2013), Marty and Pieklo, both reporters for the reproductive health and justice news site RH Reality Check, take a state-by-state look at the many bills that were introduced in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections. Those bills made the next year, 2011, a record year for state-level legislation to restrict abortion. States passed more anti-abortion laws in 2011 than in any year in the last three decades. What was quickly dubbed the War on Women continued into 2012. That year saw the second highest number of new state-level abortion restrictions. This year is shaping up to be much like the prior two, with new restrictions introduced in more than a dozen states, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Marty and Pieklo argue that this onslaught of bad legislation has put women — especially poor, minority, and rural women — in a separate and secondary class of health care consumers who have little choice or control over their reproductive health. The authors posit that the goal of the many restrictions is to render abortion “legal in name only” — still legal, but largely unavailable.

But it doesn’t stop at abortion. They quote Texas state representative Wayne Christian to give readers a glimpse at the larger goals behind abortion restrictions. When asked why he supported a Texas law to defund Planned Parenthood — whether it was Planned Parenthood’s association with abortion (even though the affiliates that were targeted didn’t offer abortions) or whether he more broadly supported a “war on birth control” — he replied, “Of course it’s a war on birth control, abortion, everything — that’s what family planning is supposed to be about.” To further underscore the breadth of the battle, the authors also quote Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who argues, “It is important to understand that the attack on ‘abortion’ and efforts to establish separate legal status for eggs, embryos, and fetuses do not just implicate reproductive rights but virtually every right, including the right to privacy in medical information.”

Marty and Pieklo point to the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey as a turning point that pitted the rights of women against concerns over eggs, embryos, and fetuses. A case that challenged abortion regulations in Pennsylvania, Planned Parenthood v. Casey resulted in a decision that didn’t overturn the liberties guaranteed by Roe v. Wade but put them at odds with a state’s interest in safeguarding potential life.

While the Casey decision set the legal stage, a more recent court decision gave anti-abortion groups the financial power to roll back reproductive rights. The Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission radically undermined campaign finance laws and thereby helped fuel the many recent anti-abortion laws. That particular outcome of the Citizens United decision should put a smile on the face of attorney James Bopp, Jr.; Bopp helped the lobbying organization Citizens United realize their legal victory, and he has also had numerous anti-abortion groups among his clients, including Focus on the Family and National Right to Life.

With that financial power behind them, anti-abortion activists went on the offensive with renewed fervor — and a new strategy. The focus, according to Michael New of the conservative Witherspoon Institute, would no longer be on “demand side” legislation — that is, imposing legal or financial barriers to abortion. The new focus would be on “supply side” legislation — that is, making it increasingly difficult, both legally and financially, for abortion providers to continue operating. Each new regulation, from ultrasound requirements to bans on abortions by telemedicine, can make providers rethink their commitment to offering abortions — and deter potential providers from ever offering them at all. As Marty and Pieklo report, a handful of restrictive bills that were passed in Ohio drove many resident physicians to leave the state.

With a focus on “supply side” legislation, anti-abortion activists chose 10 states and the District of Columbia as their battlegrounds. Arizona was one of those battlegrounds, and the state is well featured in Crow After Roe, for reasons both good and bad. The foreword is written by Gloria Feldt, who headed a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Arizona before becoming president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1996. Arizona is also the last of the states to get an in-depth look in Crow After Roe. Arizona’s relentless attack on reproductive rights — including the 20-week abortion ban that was recently struck down in federal court — earned it the final look and the most hyperbolic chapter title: “Arizona: Banning Everything but the Kitchen Sink.”

In her foreword, Feldt repeats a call to action from her book The War on Choice: “‘We must not just fight back,’ I warned; ‘We must fight forward.’” In the book’s final chapter, Marty and Pieklo offer several suggestions for fighting both back and forward, among them the formation of an activist base to support candidates who will defend and advance reproductive rights. To increase the number of candidates who fit that description, they recommend growing the work of organizations like She Should Run and Off the Sidelines, both of which encourage better representation of women in public life and leadership.

The authors also point to two bills introduced in California last year that could serve as models for not only defending reproductive health care but expanding access to it. State Senator Christine Kehoe introduced a bill that would increase access to abortion for rural Californians by allowing nurses, midwives, and physician’s assistants to perform surgical abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy. Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell introduced a bill that would allow registered nurses to administer birth control.

Marty and Pieklo point to the “powerful activist backlash” as the silver lining that came out of the last two years of attack. The defeat of Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban is a fresh reminder of what advocates and activists can accomplish. A number of similar bans have been passed in other states in recent years, making Arizona’s victory an important beginning.