TRAP Laws: Slowly Chipping Away at Abortion Access

Repeal TRAP laws nowThis week marks the third anniversary of the decision in Planned Parenthood Southeast, Inc. v. Strange, a lawsuit that challenged HB 57. This bill, passed by Alabama’s state legislature, required every physician who performs an abortion at a clinic to have staff privileges at a local hospital. Planned Parenthood clinics in Birmingham and Mobile, as well as providers at Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, would have been unable to obtain hospital staff privileges for various reasons, including a hospital board’s opposition to abortion, requirements that doctors admit between 12 and 48 patients a year to retain staff privileges, and stipulations that the physicians live within a certain radius of the hospital. (Ridiculous, right?)

Luckily, on August 4, 2014, a federal court blocked the requirement that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals — a victory for reproductive rights, but just one small battle in the larger war against abortion access in the United States.


We will not let our state laws be templates for other anti-choice legislation.


Bills like HB 57 are called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws. TRAP laws selectively focus on medical facilities that provide abortions to make it more difficult for reproductive health care providers to offer abortion services to their patients. In a nutshell, TRAP laws segregate abortion from regular medical procedures, discourage doctors from providing abortion services because of the tedious requirements to do so, and dramatically increase the cost of obtaining an abortion.

Many state legislatures pass these restrictions by arguing that abortion is a risky medical procedure. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, “abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures for women in the United States. Fewer than 0.05% of women obtaining abortions experience a complication.” Continue reading

Stenberg v. Carhart: “Partial Birth” (NOT)

Dr. Leroy Carhart

Dr. Leroy Carhart sued Nebraska for outlawing a specific late-term abortion procedure, and won.

Seventeen years ago today — June 28, 2000 — the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law banning “partial birth abortion,” which the letter of the law described as “an abortion procedure in which the person performing the abortion partially delivers vaginally a living unborn child before killing the unborn child and completing the delivery.” *

Pause here a moment.

Is there any doubt in your mind that these words, quoted from the statute, were chosen by lawmakers to sound like infanticide, the killing of a baby between birth and one year? Are you horrified yet? Read on.

By a 5-4 ruling, the majority struck down the law in Stenberg v. Carhartsaying Nebraska’s ban was unconstitutionally vague and lacked a needed exception allowing the procedure to be used to protect the health of the pregnant mother. What? Huh? Infanticide is OK with the Supremes? How could that be? (Dissenting justices used the word infanticide 13 times in their dissents.)


Instead of outlawing abortion in one fell swoop, opponents are going after it one procedure at a time, stigmatizing lifesaving care in the process.


First, what banned procedure are we talking about? In 1992, Dr. Martin Haskell developed the “D&X” procedure, intact dilation and extraction (the medically appropriate name), calling it “a quick, surgical outpatient method” for late second-trimester and early third-trimester abortions. Outpatient is a key word here because the patient does not require an expensive, overnight hospital stay and, as we know, many hospitals do not allow any abortion procedures at all. Dr. Carhart, a surgeon and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, wanted to, and ultimately did, adopt this technique in his medical practice as the best and safest abortion option for some women.

As I read through all 107 pages of the court’s opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and including three concurring opinions and four dissents, what struck me was one basic fact: The Nebraska law prohibited previability abortions** in which a fetus had a zero percent chance of ever being born — no matter what procedure medical professionals used. At that point in its development, the fetus could not survive outside the uterus. The Nebraska law that the Supreme Court struck down, then, had been a tool to demonize and criminalize physicians who decided the best interest of the woman was served by a procedure defined in the medical literature as “intact dilation and extraction,” and by anti-abortion politicians and agitators as “partial birth abortion.” Continue reading

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt: Finally, Facts Matter

On Monday, June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court decided that Texas HB2 was unconstitutional, eliminating requirements for Texas doctors to have hospital admitting privileges near their clinics and for abortion clinics to become surgical facilities. Many fine summaries of this landmark decision popped up within hours of the decision. See Planned Parenthood’s press release and “The Court once again makes the ‘undue-burden’ test a referendum on the facts” on SCOTUS Blog.


On Monday, the Supreme Court demanded that laws be supported by facts.


What struck me most about the majority opinions written by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg was the lack of assertion and conjecture so often found in the court’s previous abortion case decisions. Recall Justice Kennedy’s 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart opinion upholding Congress’ Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003: “We find no reliable data” that abortion causes women emotional harm, but we find it nonetheless “self-evident” and “unexceptional to conclude” that “some women” who choose to terminate their pregnancies suffer “regret,” “severe depression,” “loss of esteem,” and other ills. “Some women”? Did we really uphold a law based upon this kind of neo-paternalistic, fuzzy thinking?

Not this time out. The Supreme Court put future litigants on notice: Facts matter, science matters, logic matters, common-sense inference matters. Unsupported assertions? Nah. Consultants parading as scientists? Not so much. In workmanlike fashion, dealing with abortion in a frank and unapologetic way, the majority read into law 15 separate District Court findings of fact gleaned from stipulations, depositions, and testimony. Further, the court chastised Texas for “attempting to label an opposing expert witness, Doctor Grossman, as irresponsible.” Breyer writes, “making a hypothesis — and then attempting to verify that hypothesis with further studies, as Dr. Grossman did — is not irresponsible. It is an essential element of the scientific method. The District Court’s decision to credit Dr. Grossman’s testimony was sound, particularly given that Texas provided no credible experts to rebut it.” Wow — The Supremes defend the scientific method. Color me happy.  Continue reading

Reproductive Justice?

President Bill Clinton stands by as Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as associate Supreme Court Justice in 1993

President Bill Clinton stands by as Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as associate Supreme Court justice in 1993

When Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016, it was the death of more than just one man. For the first time in 20 years, the fairly reliable conservative tilt of the Supreme Court vanished. Now there were four generally liberal justices, three remaining consistently conservative justices, and Anthony Kennedy, a moderate who, though usually conservative, could move to the left, especially on social issues, as we saw in his eloquent opinion in support of same-sex marriage. If Kennedy voted with the conservatives, it would result in a tie, not a 5-4 decision. In case of a tied vote on the Supreme Court, the lower court ruling holds, and if there are conflicting rulings in different circuits, we continue with different law in different parts of the country.

Or the court could order a rehearing of a case once a new justice is seated.


The makeup of the Supreme Court is a glaring example of how much is at stake in presidential elections.


The political wheels started turning immediately. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell almost immediately announced that Scalia’s seat should be filled after “the American people” weigh in during the presidential election — Republicans always seem to forget that the American people have already weighed in twice by making Barack Obama president. This categorical rejection of any Obama nominee, no matter who, is unprecedented. Scalia’s seat was apparently sacred, and could only fairly be filled by a Republican appointee. McConnell does not seem to consider that the next president might also be a Democrat.

The change in the balance of the court was apparent in the first of two cases concerning reproductive health that were scheduled to be heard this month. (The second case, Zubik v. Burwell, will be argued on March 23.) At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston analyzed the oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. It was always clear that the outcome would hinge on Justice Kennedy, and, before Scalia’s death, that in all likelihood the Texas law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical clinic requirements, would be upheld. Continue reading

Courting Women

Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan: Sitting Supreme Court Justices

Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan: Sitting Supreme Court Justices

“… [T]he difference of having three women on the Supreme Court. I think that all the justices obviously are important in that court, but it really makes a difference to begin to have a court that more reflects the diversity of this country, and I think women who can really speak from a woman’s point of view, just how impactful these kind of laws that specifically target women and women’s access to health care, how impactful they are. And I was really grateful to have the women’s voices in the room.”

Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president, March 2, 2016, commenting on that day’s oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

Me, too, Cecile.

Courting women. Let’s snatch that phrase from the parlor in a Jane Austen novel and lob it into the Supreme Court chambers, making courting not the passive “pick me” word of yesteryear, but an assertive “empower me” word of today.

Power, judiciously applied, is what Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan demonstrated during oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. They formed a tag team of relentless logic, assertiveness, and deep understanding of the predicament of women in Texas needing timely, accessible abortion care — and not getting it. The court was probing two provisions of Texas HB2, the law that requires that (1) physicians performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a hospital near their clinics and (2) all abortions must be performed in ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs, mini-hospitals). (See SCOTUSblog “Round Up” and Roe v. Wade: Texas Then and Now for additional background on this important case.)

Justices explored the elements that create an unconstitutional “undue burden” for women seeking an abortion by questioning attorney Stephanie Toti, representing Whole Woman’s Health, and Solicitor General Scott Keller, representing Texas. Here are some highlights: Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • notorious-rbgA force to be reckoned with for sure … RBG is definitely the woman of the hour these days. (Slate Double X)
  • Rabidly conservative, forced-birth advocate, and noted homophobe Cathi Herrod continues to wreak havoc on the state of Arizona with SB 1318. (Phoenix New Times)
  • And somehow, SB 1318 has been amended to be even more sucktacular. Ever heard of “reversing” a medication abortion? No one with medical knowledge has, but Repubs just don’t care! (RH Reality Check)
  • AZ state Rep. Victoria Steele bravely came forward as a survivor of sexual assault in order to fight SB 1318. To say we salute her and are grateful for her advocacy would be a huge understatement. (Tucson Weekly)
  • You’d think a bill helping to combat the evil that is human sex trafficking would be a cut-and-dry piece of legislation that both parties could get behind, right? Well, when Republicans are in charge of the legislation, you can bet anti-abortion tomfoolery will ensue. Goal? Make life harder for sex trafficking victims who get pregnant and prefer not to have their rapists’ babies. (HuffPo)
  • And Jon Stewart (rightfully) has some choice words for the Dems who supported the bill without reading it. (The Daily Show)
  • Oh look, another Republican weasel (Nebraska state Rep. Justin Harris) who wants to all but ensure that rape victims end up giving birth against their will. And not just any rape victims … underage ones. (RH Reality Check)
  • Whoa. Canada can teach us a thing or two about age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education! (HuffPo Canada)

Roe v. Wade: Repercussions on the Movement for Reproductive Rights

Many would be surprised to learn that a reproductive-rights champion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg would criticize the Roe v. Wade decision.

Even an abortion rights champion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg has criticisms of the Roe v. Wade decision.

On January 22, 1973 — 42 years ago today — the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, wherein a Texas woman sought an abortion, but existing legislation in Texas prevented her from doing so. The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that it was unconstitutional for states to interfere in the process of a physician providing a first-trimester abortion. Before the ruling, it was illegal for physicians to perform an abortion in 30 states. In the remaining 20 states, it was illegal for physicians to perform abortion unless it was deemed medically necessary.

Women, their autonomy, and their right to decide their future were not given as reasons why Roe v. Wade was decided the way that it was. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the Supreme Court, stating that the case was a right to privacy issue that was protected under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Before his death in 1999, Justice Blackmun stated outright that Roe v. Wade was not about women’s rights. Ronald Rotunda, law professor at Chapman University, recalls a 1994 conversation with Justice Blackmun where he explicitly spelled out the ruling’s intentions: “Roe ‘protected the woman’s right, with the physician, to get an abortion.’” Rotunda made clear that “Blackmun emphasized the italicized phrase with his voice.  He spoke of the case as a doctor’s rights case, not a woman’s right case.”


Some reproductive rights supporters think Roe v. Wade faltered in not explicitly prioritizing women’s rights to control their own bodies.


Each January, reproductive justice advocates celebrate the Roe v. Wade decision because it is absolutely essential that a woman is able to obtain an abortion if that is what she decides — because she, and she alone, should decide her future and fate. However, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade was never about women’s rights. Numerous legal scholars in favor of reproductive rights have taken issue with how Roe v. Wade was handled. Their criticisms are largely that: (1) the Supreme Court went beyond its role of judicial power and into that of legislative power by making abortion legal in all 50 states, and (2) the Supreme Court failed to make the decision about a woman’s right to choose her own future. Below is only a brief cross-section of these criticisms. Continue reading