Lost in Translation: What the Doublespeak of Reproductive Rights Opponents Really Means

NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona's Kat Sabine in front of the Capitol in 2012.

NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona’s Kat Sabine in front of the Capitol in 2012.

A “dedication and commitment to protect the health of women” sounds like something from the mission statement of a praiseworthy organization — one that might even get you to grab your wallet for a donation or your running shoes for a marathon. Those nine words, though, came from Gov. Jan Brewer, in a proclamation against Roe v. Wade that she signed for the Center for Arizona Policy.

The Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) is an influential, far-right Christian organization behind more than 100 of Arizona’s state laws. Since its founding in 1995, CAP has taken positions that are antagonistic to the health of Arizonans — adults and children alike. As Rachel Port has written previously for this blog, CAP has opposed anti-bullying measures, comprehensive sexuality education, and the Affordable Care Act.

Abortion opponents may claim to safeguard women’s health, but their policies put women in danger.

People who oppose access to abortion have made rhetoric about the health of women and children a common theme in their messaging, implying that the termination of a pregnancy is a dangerous procedure that threatens patients’ health. It’s been part of their toolbox even though abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a patient can undergo — safer, in fact, than childbirth. It’s been in use in spite of other contradictions as well, like those CAP exhibits in its disregard or adversarial stance toward policies that would promote the health of women and children.

It was that gap between rhetoric and reality that the Center for Reproductive Rights and Ibis Reproductive Health decided to gauge in a study that examined whether “the concern that anti-choice advocates and legislators say they have for women and children translates into the passage of state policies known to improve the health and well-being of women and children.” The study looked at whether “the concern that anti-choice advocates and legislators say they have for women and children translates into the passage of state policies known to improve the health and well-being of women and children.”

Ibis and the Center for Reproductive Rights took a look at which of 14 commonly enacted abortion restrictions were in place in each state. The restrictions ranged from ultrasound requirements to policies against private and public health insurance coverage of abortion. To see how these squared with improvements in women’s and children’s health, they also took a state-by-state look at policies that focused on “efforts to address maternal mortality; improve general health care affordability and access; support pregnant women’s rights and health; address issues related to children’s education; support the financial health of families, and promote a healthy environment.”

What the study found was that the states with the most abortion restrictions were the worst states when it came to health policies and health outcomes for women and children. Arizona, sadly, served as a good example of their findings. With 13 of the possible 14 abortion restrictions in place, the Grand Canyon State ranked 33rd in the study’s well-being scores, tied with Georgia, Mississippi, and Missouri. Arizona was among the 11 states with the worst well-being scores. New Hampshire, with only two of the possible 14 abortion restrictions in place, ranked first in well-being, and Vermont, with none of those abortion restrictions in place, ranked second.

One of CAP’s most hollow-sounding pronouncements of concern for women’s health was captured in the name of a recently enacted law it spearheaded, the Women’s Health Protection Act, or HB 2284. Signed into law in April, HB 2284 makes abortion providers subject to unannounced, warrantless inspections by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS). Reproductive health clinics have already reported an increase in inspections since the law took effect. Arizonans have not seen any measurable improvement in women’s health as a result of these increased inspections, but what they have seen is the inspection regime put to use as an intimidation tactic that threatens the exercise of reproductive rights.

In October, Kat Sabine, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona, received a notice from ADHS that threatened an inspection of her own home. Neither Sabine nor NARAL provides medical services of any kind, but ADHS claimed to have received a complaint that Sabine was providing health care services without a license. According to a press release a few weeks later from the ACLU of Arizona, “ADHS gave no basis for its conclusion that Ms. Sabine’s home might be a health care facility.”

“Our health department is basing its fishing expeditions on baseless complaints and using its authority to harass people in their homes,” Sabine commented on her experience. NARAL’s activities include education campaigns and political action to oppose barriers to abortion, and as executive director, Sabine has been the voice for much of NARAL Arizona’s rallying. Given Sabine’s and NARAL’s history of advocacy, ACLU of Arizona Senior Counsel Dan Pochoda expressed doubts that the ADHS had made an innocent error when it targeted Sabine; “the circumstantial evidence is discomfiting,” he wrote in a response on her behalf.

Already the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act has made clear what’s really behind the rhetoric of protection: indifference to women’s health and contempt for women’s reproductive rights.

So perfect in its doublespeak, Arizona’s Women’s Health Protection Act shares the same name as S. 1696/HR 3471, the federal Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would prohibit many state restrictions on reproductive health care. Introduced in November of last year by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, and Rep. Judy Chu, D-CA, the federal act would block state legislatures from interfering with a patient’s constitutional rights to safe and legal reproductive health care. Noting the rhetoric of protection politicians on the other side of the issue have employed, Sen. Blumenthal remarked, “A new federal law is necessary to stop anti-choice legislators from using women’s health and safety as a ploy to enact unconscionable and unconstitutional state statutes that obstruct and block women from essential health care and reproductive rights.”

The saying goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the case of the Center for Arizona Policy — and many others like it — it’s a form of deception that puts women’s health in danger.